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& January 17, 18, 19, 23, 24, 25, 27, 28, 29, 31*, February 1, 2, 2017
01/15/2017 -  
Jules Massenet: Werther
Piotr Beczala*/Arturo Chacón-Cruz/Josep Bros (Werther), Anna Caterina Antonacci*/Nora Gubisch/Carol García (Charlotte), Elena Sancho Pereg*/Sonia de Munck (Sophie), Joan Martin-Royo*/Carlos Daza (Albert), Stefano Palatchi (Le Bailli), Guisela Zannerini/Elizabeth Maldonado (Kätchen), António Comas (Schmidt), Marc Canturri (Johann), Xavier Comorera/Ignasi Gomar* (Brühlmann)
Cor Infantil Amics de la Unió de Granollers, Joseph Vila i Jover (Director), Orquestra Simfonica del Gran Teatre del Liceu, Alain Altinoglu (Musical Director)
Willy Decker (Stage Director), Wolfgang Gussman (Set & Costume Designer), Hans Toelstede (Lighting)

The French operas of the nineteenth century were once among the most popular in the repertoire. For at least the past fifty years, they seem to have fallen out of fashion. One important reason is the loss of national schools of singing, especially the French one, in our globalized opera world. Without an understanding of the French style and without the required elegance and clear diction, these operas seem either like a painful exercise in dated mannerisms or are, more commonly, sad generic pieces lacking in style. Luckily, there have been over the years a few, often not French native speakers, who have risen to the occasion of making French opera sound authentic and stylish. Alfredo Kraus, Nicolai Gedda, Neil Shicoff, Victoria de Los Angeles, Catherine Malfitano, Jeannette Pilou and Ileana Cotrubas come to mind. The two leads in tonight’s performance, Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci, are among those few who can bring French opera to life thanks to their understanding of the French style and their ease with the relatively hard to sing diphthong-rich language of Molière.

Despite the stylistic prowess and vocal mastery of Beczala and Antonacci, the sentimentality of Massenet’s saccharine adaptation of Goethe’s work is still not so easy to digest. There, stage director Willy Decker’s beautiful sets and intelligent ideas came to the rescue. Decker uses the two drunkard friends of Charlotte’s father, Schmidt and Johann, as cynic stage masters. Instead of providing mild comic relief, they are made to represent the middle class values of the day’s society: loyalty to one’s parents, sticking to a promise even at the cost of one’s happiness and fidelity in marriage despite coldness and unhappiness, These two minor roles become omnipresent: introducing Werther to the Baillif’s household, announcing the return of Albert from a long trip, taunting the Baillif and later Werther with the portrait of Charlotte’s dead mother, spying on Werther and Charlotte during their Act I duet, cruelly mocking Brühlmann for his loss of Kätchen, and finally requesting Albert’s gun on Werther’s behalf. Another great idea are the stylized angular homes of the town of Wetzlar and a smaller version of the same houses that serves as the children’s toys. The angular dimension is an indicator of the rigidity of the day’s values. The choice of their representation as toys indicates the early and deep inculcation of these rigid values. In the first act, an intense blue sky contrasting with an intense yellow-brown ground match Charlotte’s blue dress and Werther’s yellow-brown pants and coat. The intensity of the colours parallels the intensity of the emotions. The third act opens to Charlotte and Albert seated at opposite ends of a stylized elongated table reflecting the growing distance between them. In the Scène des lettres, Werther’s letter are the size of newspapers reflecting how much they have grown in importance to Charlotte. A brilliant idea is to have the returning Werther and the now married Charlotte passionately run towards each other but never actually meeting, just running in parallel to one another, an augur of tragedy to come.

French conductor Alain Altinoglu led the orchestra with passion, bringing out the Wagnerian streak in the music of a composer once called Mademoiselle Wagner. Beczala’s French diction is truly remarkable. His Act 1 aria “O Nature, pleine de grace” shows how impassioned this Werther is. His emphasis on words such as “paradis” and “éblouis”, while sustaining the high notes, and his phrasing of “et toi soleil, viens m’inonder de tes rayons” were a masterclass in French singing. His Act 2 aria “Un autre est son époux!” was no less impressive. His phrasing of “une ardente prière” and the recurring “C’est moi qu’elle pouvait aimer” indicated Werther’s truly febrile state. The Polish tenor’s interpretation of the opera’s big hit “Pourquoi me réveiller?” brought the house down with applause lasting several minutes. According to some of his fans attending the Liceu’s production for a second time, a bis was allowed on the premiere. Joan Martin-Royo’s Albert sounded appropriately virile and managed to convincingly portray an unpleasant uninspiring man. Despite a couple of high notes that were sung too sharp, Sophie’s Act 2 aria “Du gai soleil, plein de flamme” showed a promising coloratura in Elena Sancho Pereg. Antonacci and Pereg made the most of their Act 3 duet which juxtaposes a cheerful Sophie with a now glum Charlotte. To the plaintive recurring melody of the duet, Pereg attempts at cheerfulness are muted by Charlotte’s reservedness. Antonacci, a true singing actress, albeit one with a solid voice in contrast to several present day operatic shrieking actresses, manages to deeply move in her two Act 3 scenes “Werther! Qui m’aurait dit! Ces lettres!” and “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes”. Restrained in the former and finally surrendering to her fate in the latter, Antonacci’s temperament is ideally suited for the role. Stoic and devoid of histrionics, her underplaying brings out Charlotte’s suffering even more. Willy Decker’s anti-bourgeois views are reinforced at the very end of the opera, as Albert removes Charlotte from the arms of the expiring Werther, defiance finally surfaces. It is clear that this Charlotte will no longer remain Albert’s loyal wife.

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