Lyric Opera: “Werther”

The deep, sad chords of the overture to Massenet’s “Werther” at Lyric Opera of Chicago were all we needed to hear.

This opera, based on “The Sorrows of Young Werther” by Goethe, was going to be a tragedy.

Lyric’s new production, however, is nothing of the sort. Yes, lives are lost and ruined in this full-blown romantic drama, but everything is done with such exquisite taste and humanity, that the narrative could be taking place in a house down the block.

Like all Lyric’s productions so far this season, the voices are beyond heavenly, despite the hell these characters finally plunge into.

American tenor Matthew Polenzani (a Wilmette native) has the title role, and though he does not resemble a tortured poet, he ably embodies the young man’s anguish. He is quite an actor as well. When he returns home from a ball with the lovely Charlotte, he twirls into his little one-room flat as if he could have danced all night.

Charlotte, sung by slender French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch, is every bit a tender-hearted girl. Her character minds her younger brothers and sisters after the death of their mother, marries Albert, whom she is expected to wed, and realizes all too late that the man she desires is Werther. If there is any doubt about that, by the final act she is writhing on her bed, reaching for Werther, who is now beyond her grasp.

At first her voice is sweet, but by the end it fills the opera house with burning passion. In the scene where she re-reads Werther’s love letters, she moves into a state of madness, suffering with his every word. Director Francesco Negrin puts Albert on stage with her, adding to the bizarre nature of her behavior.

Koch is a superior actress who gracefully uses her body as well as her voice to express her character’s conflicts.

Albert is sung by American baritone Craig Verm, who has the thankless role of a man who realizes he has lost the love of his wife. He carries it well.

A ray of sunshine is Charlotte’s sister Sophie, who has a crush on Werther. American soprano Kiri Deonarine, a second-year Ryan Opera Center members, shines in the role, but her love for Werther goes unrequited.

Chicago’s own Philip Kraus plays the Bailiff, father of Charlotte, Sophie and six more children, who look like they just walked out of “The Sound of Music” and sing even better.

The multi-layered stage is surrounded by a wall of gray steel. Strange, since the drama is taking place in the 1780s, when brick would have been used and would look so much better. It is meant to show the constraints on society at that time. I think the libretto does that well enough.

Another curiosity is the use of three male figures dressed as Werther in the final scene. One lies dead by his own hand, the other is somewhere in the background while Polenzani sings Werther’s swan song. It is puzzling, but the tenor’s aria is glorious.

Massenet’s music is elegantly evocative. When Werther and Charlotte embrace briefly in the first act, his pulsating heart is heard from the orchestra pit. There are violins for the fantasy love scenes and horns portray the torment everyone suffers in the end.

Sir Andrew Davis conducts the superb Lyric Opera orchestra and November 14 marked the 25th anniversary of his Lyric Opera debut. General director Anthony Freud saluted him from the stage and the audience cheered mightily for the company’s music director, who has conducted 46 operas in the Civic Opera House.


Lyric Opera’s “Werther” runs at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago at 7:30 p.m. November 17, 20, 23 and 26. For information, visit their website.

Photo: Matthew Polenzani and Sophie Koch. Credit: Dan Rest.

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