To love or die in Germany

  • Article by: LARRY FUCHSBERG , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 30, 2012 - 12:45 PM

REVIEW: James Valenti owns the show as a tragic poet in Minnesota Opera's staging of Massenet's "Werther."

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James Valenti is the obsessive poet Werther in Minnesota Opera's production of the Jules Massenet work.

If sentimentality is your thing, Jules Massenet's 1892 "Werther," which opened Saturday at Ordway Center in a new Minnesota Opera production marking the centenary of the composer's death, is an essential evening in the theater -- an unabashed, world-class, multi-hanky tear-jerker, engineered by a meticulous master.

But even if your musical diet is rigorously schmaltz-free, there are other pleasures to be savored in this, the first of Massenet's 30 operas to be mounted by the 49-year-old company, notably the singing of tenor James Valenti and mezzo-soprano Roxana Constantinescu.

The action, loosely based on a 1774 novel-in-letters by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that triggered a wave of suicides across Europe, is uncomplicated. The title character, an obsessional poet -- described by a less-than-admiring critic of the opera as "a fiery-tempered young man who enjoys getting drunk on his own words" -- falls in love with Charlotte, a dutiful small-town girl who'd promised her dying mother that she'd marry the conventional Albert. Unable to dent her bourgeois propriety, Werther shoots himself -- in a barren room with "Liebe oder Tod" (Love or Death) scrawled defiantly across the wall -- and, after a prolonged love-death (not found in Goethe), expires in Charlotte's arms.

Director Kevin Newbury and his design team -- Allen Moyer (sets), Jessica Jahn (costumes), D.M. Wood (lighting) -- have shifted these doings forward a century or so, from Goethe's time to the smokestack Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Almost the entire opera is played against a deliberately unbeautiful industrial landscape. This makes nonsense of Werther's ardent paeans to Nature (here represented by a single stunted tree) and of Massenet's often pastoral-sounding music. But the production's jarring visuals, light-years removed from the painterly stage pictures of yore, help inoculate the spectator against the opera's occasional mawkishness.

As Werther, Valenti owns the evening, a few opening-night wobbles notwithstanding. An alumnus of the company's Resident Artist program whose credits include La Scala and the Met, he now boasts a low register to rival his heroic top, and his French sounds better than it did in 2008. His singing is deeply musical; his professions of ecstasy in the famous "moonlight" scene of Act 1 -- an epitome of the composer's craft -- are wholly believable. He paces himself sagely.

Constantinescu is a warm Charlotte; her velvety mezzo manages to seem both alluring and maternal. She's particularly affecting in the company of soprano Angela Mortellaro, a vivacious scene-stealer as Charlotte's sister Sophie. Gabriel Preisser is an earnest Albert; Joseph Beutel cuts a sympathetic figure as Charlotte's father.

Conductor Christoph Campestrini draws playing of remarkable transparency and refinement from the orchestra, which could at times have been louder.

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  • Roxana Constantinescu as Charlotte.

  • Joseph Beutel as Charlotte's father and Angela Mortellaro as Sophie, Charlotte's sister.

  • WERTHER

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

    When: 7:30 p.m. Tue. & Thu., 8 p.m. Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Feb. 5.

    Where: Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.

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

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