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.