Forbidden love amid the arias

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 21, 2012 - 6:08 PM

Tenor James Valenti and mezzo soprano Roxana Constantinescu not only have the voices, but the looks for Minnesota Opera's production of "Werther."

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James Valenti and Roxana Constantinescu star in the Minnesota Opera’s production of “Werther.”

Photo: Aleutian Calabay,

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The camera loves them. James Valenti and Roxana Constantinescu, decked out in glamorous black duds, flashed their pearly whites and traded lines while shooting a commercial last week to promote "Werther," the new Minnesota Opera production that opens Saturday.

"Unrequited love," he begins.

"Passion," she answers.

"Ideals. ... Reality. ... 'Werther' is a love story. ... It's gorgeous music. ... And extraordinary voices. ... Come see us in 'Werther!'"

With tenor Valenti in the title role and Constantinescu as Charlotte, his "unrequited love" interest, the Minnesota Opera has turned up the heat, casting two singers who are gorgeous in voice as well as appearance. This is Valenti's third lead role in Minnesota since 2008. Constantinescu, who laughed off a casual joke in the studio about divas ("I'm just a mezzo"), returns after charming audiences as Cinderella in October 2010.

Dale Johnson, the opera's artistic director, had long talked about bringing Valenti to play "Werther," and he went to Vienna in 2008 to check out Constantinescu. He fell in love with her "chocolatey" voice, and it became just a matter of time before the two striking young singers would be matched here.

Last week, as they faced the cameras, producers asked Constantinescu to say certain lines in Italian, French, Romanian, German and German with a Viennese accent. She complied flawlessly until she was asked to speak in Russian.

"Nyet," she said. There is a line, after all, that no self-respecting Romanian will cross.

Valenti, between countless takes, said he was having difficulty saying, "Extraordinary voices."

"Is it weird to be saying that about yourself?" asked Lani Willis, the opera's director of marketing and communications.

Valenti quickly said no, talking about himself was no problem.

"Of course, he's a tenor," said Constantinescu.

"Just be yourself," Willis told Valenti. "You're speaking right to that 55-year-old woman out there who wants to come see this show."

To Constantinescu, Willis said, "You're speaking to the husband of that 55-year-old woman."

Unrequited love?

Jules Massenet wrote the music to "Werther" (vare- TARE), which is based on Goethe's epistolary novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther." After standing in for Charlotte's betrothed at a party, Werther falls in love with the young woman and pines for her. She secretly loves him, too, but cannot say anything because of her relationship.

"Is that unrequited love?" Valenti asked the other day before the shooting. "It's more complicated than that."

"She can't love him," Constantinescu said, after asking for a definition of "unrequited."

After Willis and other hangers-on suggested "frustrated, forbidden, hidden," everyone agreed to stick with "unrequited."

His Met singing debut

Valenti, for whom Johnson predicted great things when the New Jersey native was in Minnesota's Resident Artist Program, had his rather eventful debut at the Metropolitan Opera last year. He was part of the "Leonard Slatkin mess" in "La Traviata." Slatkin, an esteemed conductor with a national reputation, admitted before entering rehearsals that he had not conducted the opera. He then locked horns with Angela Georghiu, another Romanian who is indeed a diva (she's a soprano). On opening night, Slatkin had trouble with the score, and he later claimed that Georghiu aggravated the problem.

Nice situation for Valenti to be making his debut, no?

"I was so focused on myself because it was my Met debut and I had food poisoning the night before, so I was making sure my voice was all right," Valenti said. "I didn't have any real problems with [Slatkin]."

Valenti sidestepped the mess and got not only one but two good reviews (New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini returned to write a second notice after Slatkin had been replaced). Valenti will return to the Met next year for "Madame Butterfly." But before that, he flies to Munich to begin work with the Bavarian State Opera immediately after "Werther" closes.

Constantinescu, who made her Los Angeles debut in "Cosi Fan Tutte" this season, will beat Valenti out the door. She closes "Werther" on a Sunday and flies home to Vienna, where she begins rehearsals at 11 a.m. Monday for "The Tales of Hoffmann."

For the moment, though, they are both in the Twin Cities. Asked if Constantinescu is the cutest mezzo he's ever sung with, Valenti swung for the fences.

"She's fantastic, beautiful," he said.

Constantinescu seems to have a keener feel for the inane question.

"What else could he say?" she said. "I am standing right here."

But when she was asked the reverse question, she played right along, too.

"Yes, and all my colleagues will hate me for this," she said. "But look at him. How can I say anything different?"

  • WERTHER

    What: By Jules Massenet. Directed by Kevin Newbury, conducted by Christoph Campestrini.

    When: Opens 7:30 p.m. Sat. 1/28

    Where: Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.

    Tickets: $18-$200. 612-333-6669 or mnopera.org.

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