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Article posted: 11/13/2012 5:30 AM

Staging proves puzzling in musically strong 'Werther'

By Scott C. Morgan

The Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of Jules Massenet's 1892 opera "Werther" will likely divide audiences as a result of director Francisco Negrin's symbol-laden staging.

Not seen at the Lyric since 1978, this "Werther" is a coproduction with San Francisco Opera where it debuted in 2010 to a mixed reception. While the performers rightfully received rapturous curtain call applause at the opera's opening this past Sunday, a small smattering of boos greeted Negrin.

Based upon Goethe's 1774 novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther," Massenet's operatic version also focuses on the obsessive title poet who is driven to suicide when his idealized love, Charlotte, marries another man to fulfill her mother's dying wishes.

Where audiences will probably take issue with Lyric's "Werther" is with the incongruous visuals in Louis Désiré's production design.

Period costume designs root the opera to its 1780s central German setting.

But Désiré's set, largely consisting of an elevated and enclosing stainless steel benched wall that frames a cluster of stylized trees and piles of steamer trunks, would not look out of place as a modern art gallery installation or as the decor for an industrial-chic nightclub.

The recessed neon-like lighting by designer Duane Schuler that occasionally shines through also makes you feel like techno or house music should be throbbing through rather than Massenet's romantic score.

In some cases, these modern visual cues gel with the psychological makeup of the characters, particularly with the big screen video projections of a dancing Charlotte that match Werther's obsessions amid his cramped and book-strewn downstage lodgings.

But others, like the abstract background streaks of blue and red, will just cause audiences to scratch their heads.

Also potentially baffling is Negrin's decision to use multiple body doubles of Werther at key points, though it could be a commentary on how Goethe's novel was historically blamed for setting off a rash of love-thwarted suicides.

But these doubles do provide a way around the stereotypical operatic death scene where it takes ages for the singing hero to physically expire.

If Negrin's ideas for "Werther" are ripe for debate (particularly the notion that the last two acts might take place in Charlotte's fraught imagination), audiences shouldn't really argue over the Lyric's overwhelming musical merits.

Conductor and music director Sir Andrew Davis leads the Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra in an engrossing account of Massenet's passionate score, flexibly working with many of the performers who are making important debuts.

Tenor and Wilmette native Matthew Polenzani is making his role debut as the love-suffering title poet, producing a bright, lovely sound with plenty of power (though he sounded slightly under at hitting a climatic high note in the second half).

French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch is making her American debut with her much-acclaimed Charlotte, musically showing her character's conflict and debilitating second guessing.

Other standouts include American soprano and Ryan Center member Kiri Deonarine as Charlotte's optimistic and wiser-than-her-years sister, Sophie, and American baritone Craig Verm as Charlotte's hurt and jealous husband, Albert.

For audiences who prefer straightforward storytelling, Negrin's open-to-interpretation "Werther" will undoubtedly frustrate. But for those willing to interpret the visual cues for potentially more nuanced meanings, the production offers many rewards beyond its already high musical values.

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