Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Good Charlotte

September 19, 2010

Alice Coote and Ramon Vargas in Werther Photo: Corey Weaver/SFO 2010

Shame on you San Francisco. Saturday night at the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Opera put on a first-rate, interesting, and very well sung performance of Werther and you could have thrown a brick in the rear orchestra with no risk of hitting anyone. What? You actually want a season of not much else besides Figaro, Butterfly, and Aida? Oh wait, you’ve already got that. Well, get ready for more if you all can’t support a show as good as this Werther is. Of course, considering the casting, the excellent singing is a given. Ramón Vargas has made Werther a calling-card role and he has more than a few splendid romantic turns in this. He seemed particularly unbound and thoroughly believable. His Charlotte is a radiant Alice Coote. You may recall that Coote was a replacement after the originally announced Elīna Garanča backed-out when she reportedly got a better offer elsewhere invoking a tersely worded missive from David Gockley. Well, the company may not have got its glitzy international opera vixen, but it did get something much better, a touching, warm and beautifully sung Charlotte. Give me Alice
Coote any day for this role (and any number of others). I was also quite fond of Heidi Stober’s Sophie and Brian Mulligan’s Albert. Emmanuel Villaume conducted a richly textured and well-paced performance from the orchestra.

Alice Coote and Ramon Vargas in Werther Photo: Corey Weaver/SFO 2010

Although all the great singing in the world won’t save a bad production, Coote and Vargas have lucked into a very thought-provoking new one from Francisco Negrin. The opera’s action plays out in a single set comprising of a small grove of trees encased in metal around their trunks and a mountain of boxes to the left side of them representing the homestead of Charlotte’s parents and later that of her own family. All of this is surrounded by a black lacquer enclosure lined with white lights. The stage is elevated roughly six feet. The black backdrop opens to reveal a variety of projections including blocks of homes and later splatters of blood. The raised stage floor is entered primarily through a trap to the right of the grove and all of this is foregrounded by a small room representing Werther’s own quarters. At times he lays in bed amidst images of Charlotte including a rear wall that becomes a video screen for projected images of her.

Negrin emphasizes that Werther's affections for Charlotte are not in any way reciprocated until Act III. Negrin keeps Werther and Charlotte physically separate during their big Act III duet, stalling their kiss until Werther is about to die in the final act. In fact, Negrin portrays the Act III duet as a dream of Charlotte's. As she lays in bed next to her husband Albert, she recalls Werther's letters and discovers her love for him. The net effect of this maneuver is to Tristan-ize the opera providing no consummation of their love until Werther’s death is imminent. In the same vein, Negrin uses two Werther doubles in Act IV. After he commits suicide, Charlotte goes to the side of one of the fallen doppel-Werthers as Vargas watches events from the sidelines, singing the final duet as if a ghost observing his own life slipping away. It’s all very engaging and produces a quite touching ending. Admittedly, this interpretation may not be to everyone's taste; however, it is a very attractive and an often thoughtful one that deserves a much bigger audience than the one it had on Saturday.


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