Meine Frau and I saw a production of Massenet’s Werther (1892) in the legendary, historic, blah blah blah, Vienna Staatsoper. The production, although not insane, included the usual attention deficit disorder- induced decisions (set the story in the 1950s, put a working television on stage, why not?) They were in keeping with the main curtain or drop which had images of Popeye and the Incredible Hulk on it.*
The story, the adaptation, of The Sorrows of Young Werther was unbelievable, a disgrace, the creation of someone who apparently actively hated Goethe’s story and wanted to destroy it. A bizarre and inappropriate Christmas theme runs through the entire opera. Charlotte is given a younger sister who has a crush on Werther. And the entire last act is the final meeting between Werther and Charlotte, after (after!) Werther has fatally shot himself. That last act is a travesty, really.
But that last act (most of the previous act as well), a long duet between the two leads, was also a sort of pure flow of song that was basically as beautiful as any opera I know. I was best off ignoring the subject, ignoring the words entirely, just luxuriating in the singing.
Werther was sung by the young Spaniard Rolando Villazón. He was not the most forceful tenor I’ve ever heard, but he had an amazing clarity, a perfect tone. The Viennese audience applauded him as soon as he came to the fore of the stage, before he had sung a note, which I found weird, but he’d earned the applause by the end. Sophie Koch was Charlotte, almost as good.
Opera fans put up with a lot of nonsense. Maybe that’s true of fans of anything, 19th century literature included.
*In general, Vienna felt genuinely elegant. So I can’t explain this lapse.