'Werther': Liebe oder Tod?

​I'll be the first to admit that opera is outside my comfort zone. Though I've appreciated the form over the years, like the larger world of classical music it has largely remained an undiscovered country. Still, intrigued by a French interpretation of a classic German novel and the industrial-inspired set, I set out for the Ordway Tuesday night to see the Minnesota Opera's production of Werther.

Jules Massenet crafted a gorgeous score for the opera, contrasting the bright hope of romance with the dark moods and suicidal thoughts of Werther. The Minnesota Opera company expertly sings the material, led by a pair of terrific performances by James Valenti as Werther and Roxana Constantinescu as his love, Charlotte.

Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther in the last quarter of the 18th century, while Massenet completed his opera at the end of the 19th. The play -- with a libretto by Edouard Blau, Paul Milliet, and Georges Hartmann -- takes more than a few liberties with Goethe's original, toning done Werther's stormy madness and removing the constant friendship among the three characters at the center of the story. Instead, it becomes as much about star-crossed lovers, as Charlotte is betrothed to Albert and eventually is forced to reject Werther. 

His torment drives him to suicide. (As is the way of operas, he is still able to sing through the show's remarkable final act, even though he is dying from a shot to the gut.) Goethe's original -- crafted from a similar case of hopeless love and suicidal thoughts -- pushed the responsibility for all of this onto to Werther, while the opera shifts it as much to Charlotte. It's not a twist that leaves a particularly good taste in the mouth.

Still, it's the music and the performances that carry the day here. Valenti has a smoldering look and sharp, clean voice that moves deftly from the idyllic love of the early part of the opera into the overheated passion and despair of the later moments. Constantinescu runs through a similar range as Charlotte and gives the character real fire through the second half, with the opera focusing almost entirely on her plight and pain during the third act, and then the final moments with gunshot Werther in the end.

To provide contrast, the opera gives us Sophie, Charlotte's younger sister who remains bright even as the darkness settles on our two main characters. Angela Mortellaro does a fine job with this, providing a lyrical and physical innocence in her performance.

That contrast also is played out in Allen Moyer's intriguing set, which juxtaposes happy, small-town scenes -- a courtyard, a village square, and Albert and Charlotte's home at Christmas -- with a cold, steel-girder frame. This is where Werther goes when he is at his darkest moments, and amid this chill he makes the final decision to take his own life. This leads the Moyer's most striking set: Werther's stark, white room, devoid of furniture, papers scattered on the floor, and the words "Liebe oder Tod" (love over death) scrawled on the wall. While the words underscore the doomed romance here, the fact that they're written completely across the wall remind us that Werther is more than a little nuts.


Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
345 Washington St., St. Paul
7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
For tickets and information, call 612.333.6669 or visit online

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