Jules Massenet's "Werther" is a staple of the European opera house repertory, but its Goethe-inspired protagonist remains an infrequent visitor to American shores. Despite the fact that the opera received its American premiere in Chicago, in 1894, Lyric Opera has ventured it only twice, the last time 34 years ago, when Alfredo Kraus reprised the super-stylish portrayal he introduced at the company premiere in 1971.
The absorbing if occasionally maddening new production by Francisco Negrin that opened Sunday afternoon at the Civic Opera House is likely to divide audience members, just as it did in 2010 at the San Francisco Opera, where it was seen for the first time.
The Mexican-born, Barcelona-based director has burrowed deep into the psychological recesses of Massenet's setting of Goethe's novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther," discarding the sentimental clichés many admirers of French romantic opera hold dear, even as he shows us, in boldly modern theater terms, how one man's obsession over a woman he desperately loves, but cannot have, wrecks his life and everybody else's around him.
The result is a kind of post-Freudian fever-dream, timeless and universal in resonance, but definitely not your grandfather's "Werther." I imagine the liberties Negrin takes with the libretto's stage directions will strike some listeners as outrageous, even silly, especially toward the end when torch-bearing body doubles stalk the stage and any illusion of reality is banished in favor of feverish fantasy.
At least Negrin, who gave Lyric audiences a delightful Handel "Rinaldo" last season, has the courage of his revisionist convictions. So compelling is the stagecraft he and designers Louis Desire (sets and costumes) and Duane Schuler (lighting) bring to this "Werther" that I found myself caring about the desperate plight of the morbidly sensitive poet, Werther, madly pursuing the fair Charlotte, who's torn between her repressed desire for Werther and her duties as someone else's wife.
Lyric has given the director a game, first-rate cast to work with, anchored by superb performances from Matthew Polenzani, as Werther, and Sophie Koch, as Charlotte, that would bring glory to any international stage. This turns out to be Polenzani's role debut as the tortured protagonist, and it's clear from the start the Ryan Center alumnus was born to sing this touchstone French tenor part. Koch, the intriguing French lyric mezzo-soprano who is making her American debut, also has what was needed, musically and dramatically, to make the characters' ultimately fatal relationship feel involving.
Lending idiomatic frisson of their own are Lyric music director Andrew Davis and his splendid orchestra, who seize on the restless currents of yearning and loss that sweep through this, Massenet's most consistently inspired opera.
Negrin moves the action in a way the overheated mind of a modern Werther might have imagined the opera. Our protagonist inhabits a lonely little hovel at the base of a chilly, split-level set, as if closed off in the depths of his own soul. The poet, instantly entranced by a beautiful young woman he hardly knows, scrawls her name in red paint on a wall of his flat. His giddy visions of Charlotte also play out on a video screen. The more she protests the impossibility of their ever finding mutual happiness, the harder he pursues her.
Charlotte's world is just as claustrophobic. The house she shares with her kid sister, Sophie, and their alcoholic father, the Bailiff, is surrounded by a steel fence, piled high with packing boxes at one side and open to a stand of metallic trees at the other. The rigid confines of 18th century bourgeois society offer her no hope of escape, keeping her at arm's length from the man to whom she cannot bring herself to say "I love you" until after he's committed suicide.
Our heroine has visions of her own. The interlude separating the third and fourth acts becomes – controversially – Charlotte's erotic dream, in which the lovers consummate a liaison Massenet preferred to leave chaste. Things get even trickier near the end, when Charlotte pours out her grief to her lover's corpse (actually a body double) while Polenzani, as Werther's ghost, croons consolation in her ear.
I didn't have as much trouble with that conceit as I did the scene where Charlotte shared her internalized reading of Werther's love letters with husband Albert, who was understandably displeased. This pointless directorial addition defied both dramatic logic and common sense.
The Illinois-born Polenzani, who scored a triumph in the title role of Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann" here last season, delivered another triumph on this occasion. The beauty of his sound, the musicality of his legato, the suppleness of his phrasing, the clarity of his French diction, the ringing ease of his high notes – all served a finely realized portrayal. His account of Werther's "Pourquoi me reveiller," ardent yet elegant, was a model of how that great aria should be sung.
What a pleasure it was to hear a native French speaker sing Charlotte. Tall and slender, Koch looked the part, and her scenes with Polenzani traced a convincing emotional arc from hesitancy, alarm and denial to passionate surrender. If a few thin and discolored high notes marred the fine finish of her singing during her third-act marathon of arias, the warmth and depth she brought to the big dramatic passages were ample compensation.
Sophie is soprano Kiri Deonarine's breakout role at Lyric, and the Ryan Center sophomore not only sang it with abundant sweetness but acted it with a bubbly charm that suited Negrin's expanded treatment of the character.
Craig Verm, in his Lyric debut, brought a resonant lyric baritone and suitably wounded pride to Albert. There were strong contributions as well from Philip Kraus as the Bailiff, along with Ryan Center members David Govertsen and John Irvin as his drinking buddies, Johann and Schmidt.
Davis savored a wealth of detail in Massenet's warmly textured orchestration, eliciting a flowing, shapely reading that paid welcome heed to the conversational element that is such an important part of the music.
Lyric Opera's production of Massenet's "Werther" plays through Nov. 26 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive; $32-$239; 312-332-2244, ext. 5600; lyricopera.org.