By James Foritano
I go to opera because I feel that watching and listening from my seat I experience emotions and insights of a strength allied to but unavailable to me in other forms of art. And this indeed was the case in attending the Boston Lyric Opera’s presentation of Jules Massenet’s “Werther.”
It takes ‘two to tango,’ as they say, and the truth of that moment came to me as Werther’s hero and heroine, tenor Alex Richardson as Werther, and mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy, tangled in the final act, voices and bodies, to bellow out a melodiously irresistible duet.
I remember the usually mopping, tearful Werther’s white shirt bursting into a blaze of spot-lit radiance. The usually inhibited Charlotte leaning into Werther like a full-back straining for the goal posts; and Werther, no longer moppy, leaning into her as if to say with bodily force: “You’ve arrived, lady, at our soul’s destination, our bodies revival.”
This passion of sound and fury whisked me back to the publication of the German writer and sage, Goethe’s triumphant romance of 1774.
This romance celebrated a passion, unsanctified by state, church or family, of two headstrong lovers who would find a consummation come hell or individual extinction.
The ecstatic, even manic, response of Goethe’s young and headstrong European readership signaled the dethroning if not the death of arranged marriage in the bourgeois and even among those classes with more social capital to lose.
The scene on the BLO stage before us was Goethe in high definition surround-sound as imagined by the French composer Jules Massenet after another century of Victorian struggles to keep a finger in the dike of morality.
That dike crumbled slowly but surely here in our Western enclave with seemingly spontaneous eruptions a la Woodstock in our own time — the ‘seeming’ spontaneity belied by the efforts of writers, musicians, dancers and artists of every kind whose soulful, sensuous art proclaimed the right of the body to express itself fully on the human stage.
Affirmation of this bold right seemed to me more powerful in the later acts of Massenet’s opera than its denial in the first acts, but there were more subtle pleasures there also to hear and to see.
The more sentimental and ‘morally correct’ side of Victorian society Massenet expressed with lovely children’s choruses celebrating traditional holidays.
The bacchanalian side of life was, in the opening acts, treated comedically, marginally as the right and need of young men who visited the nightly club scene there to work out their more chthonic urges with liquor and the sowing of ‘wild oats.’
The would-be anarchists in this primly ordered bourgeois world, Werther and Charlotte were, firmly bound by iron folkways, lurching rather than swooping figures, looking to survive rather than triumph.
Massenet’s wonderously flexible music tittered and burbled and swelled only to subside before reaching any peak of no return.
The ingenious staging was a topsy-turvy scrim for the projection of Werther’s inner struggles. Hot, flickering colors and frenetic motions indicated his and Charlotte’s efforts to damn up passions which, seething firmly in the background, would soon have their day.
Opera calls on all the arts to proclaim the human condition of contesting doubts and certainties, passions and reservations, striving and coasting. When this most complicated art hits that sweet spot, gravity releases its hold, allowing us, buoyed by trust and gratitude, to leave our numbered rows, confining seats, and change, as much as we will, from lookers- on to looking inward.
(The final shows of Boston Lyric Opera’s presentation of Jules Massenet’s “Werther” take place on Wednesday, March 16 and Friday, March 18 at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, March 20 at 3 p.m. at the City Performing Arts Center’s Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont St., Boston, Mass. For tickets, visit blo.org or call (617) 542-6772.)