The Los Angeles Opera's production of Jules Massenet's "Werther" is a darkly brooding romantic tragedy. It's based on Goethe's novel "Die Leiden des jungen Werthers" which was published in 1774. This production is set in that time period, with beautiful sets and costumes.
We open in the garden, with vine covered brick columns, a fountain with a sculpture of Cupid in it, rose bushes, and the skyline of a small German town at the back. When we first meet Werther here, he rapturously sings of the beauty of nature, the garden, and life in general. This is the last real happiness in this opera, though. We move to the cathedral, a big rock solid one that looks like Grace Episcopal Church. A tavern is next door, and Schmidt and Johann are outside at a table, imbibing generously, as the worshipers appear for church. Albert is rather melancholy as he sings of his love for his wife, Charlotte, but Werther, who is desperately in love with her, as she is with him, is crushed as he sees them around the corner.
Ramon Vargas as Werther and Paula Rasmussen's Charlotte have a chemistry about them that is really electric. He's brooding and taut and madly in love with her. She is with him, but she promised her dying mother that she would marry Albert, and she does her duty. Rasmussen is a sweet voiced Charlotte, with a decidedly dark tone. Together they create a tension that's like a passionate love with a death wish. When Werther leaves, probably for good, at the end of his Act 2 duet with Albert, a cold gust of wind blows dead fallen leaves across the stage. As Charlotte is reading his letters in her study in the third act, she is frantic, thinking of his love. When he suddenly appears in the room, she recoils, and practically ricochets like a pin ball around the farthest corner. In the final act, the set reverts almost to the first act. We have the vine covered Gothic columns at the sides, but Greco-Roman columns with a big statue of Venus in the center. It's all in ruins, with broken pieces of marble strewn around to symbolize their shattered love. Charlotte is almost in a frenzy as Wether is dying in her arms. The passion between the two flashes like lightning. Ramon Vargas and Paula Rasmussen are scintillating as the star crossed lovers.
Malcolm MacKenzie is a strong Albert, as he shares with us his "hopes and dreams" for a loving life with Charlotte. He forgives Wether in act 2 because he knows what it's like to love her, and can imagine what it would be like to lose her. When he realizes, later, that there is that mutual fire between them, he gets quite surly, and has Charlotte give Werther the pistol. He stomps out of the room and slams the door while she makes her final dash to try to stop Werther. This is a darkly dramatic opera, but it's very lyrical and pleasing. This production has three outstanding voices in the leading roles, and given the magnificent solos and duets, which is most of what the opera is, it sounds magnificent. Emmanuel Joel leads the orchestra in The Los Angeles Opera's outstanding production of Jules Massanet's "Werther." It continues Wednesday, the 23rd and Saturday, the 26th at The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the LA Music Center.