Polenzani Makes a Heady Werther

United StatesUnited States Massenet, Werther: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Sir Andrew Davis, (conductor), Civic Opera House, Chicago. 23.11.2012 (JLZ)


Werther: Matthew Polenzani
Charlotte: Sophie Koch
Sophie: Kiri Deonarine
Albert: Craig Verm
Bailiff: Philip Kraus
Johann: David Govertsen
Schmidt: John Irvin
Kätchen: Cecilia Hall
Brühlmann: Will Liverman


Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis
Director: Francisco Negrin
Designer: Louis Désiré
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler

Composed between 1885 and 1887 and based on Goethe’s epistolary novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, Jules Massenet’s opera Werther received its premiere in 1892, with the first performances given at Vienna’s Hofoper in a German translation. Since then, the score has become an opera house staple. This Lyric Opera of Chicago production—by Louis Désiré—uses period costume, yet the details of the presentation offer modern perspectives. Werther’s bedroom dominates the front of the stage, with much of the action occurring above it. The room is adorned with pictures and other memorabilia of Werther’s beloved, Charlotte, and while this should suggest ardor, its treatment here connotes obsessiveness, culminating at the end of the second act, when Charlotte’s husband Albert enters the room and reacts almost with disgust at finding his wife’s images. Presented this way, the devotion associated with Werther seems like a compulsion which, in turn, gives a manic quality to the intense emotions that are the focus of the third and fourth acts.

The American tenor Matthew Polenzani as Werther and French soprano Sophie Koch as Charlotte gave outstanding performances—full of character—and also gave impeccable interpretations of Massenet’s vocal lines. Polenzani’s rich and focused sound was impressive, with the almost naïve charm of his first aria “O Nature, pleine de grace” depicting his character’s rapture. And the passion of his second-act aria “Un autre époux!” (which verbalizes Werther’s shock atCharlotte’s marriage to Albert) was reinforced with his musicality. In the concluding scene of the second act, “Oui, ce qu’elle m’ordonne,” Polenzani provides the dramatic and musical authority this exemplary score deserves.

In the latter half of the opera, the powerful expression of the unrequited emotions almost stops the action, with Sophie Koch giving a moving performance of the aria “Werther, Werther?” Later, Koch builds further in “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes,” an emotion that fuels “Pourquoi me réveiller.” In the climactic conclusion, Werther commits suicide with Albert’s dueling pistols, and Charlotte faces the death of a man who truly loved her. At the end of the final scene, the presence of Sofie and Albert creates a surrealistic mood just before the curtain drops.

While the drama remained focused on Charlotte and Werther, the character of Albert was not overlooked, and Craig Verm offered a nuanced portrayal, particularly in the duet with Polenzani, “Du gai soleil.” In addition, Kiri Deonarine was engaging as Sophie, the young woman who loves Werther from afar, and her buoyant depiction showed off her florid soprano and even tone. In the secondary roles of Johann and Schmidt, David Govertsen and John Irvin gave vivid performances.

The entire production was supported by the fine conducting of Sir Andrew Davis, who led the orchestra with finesse. Orchestral subtleties emerged clearly, and the passages for full ensemble were rich and well voiced—a masterful interpretation of Massenet’s score.

James L. Zychowicz