When Goethe published The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774 he was criticised as idealizing acts of suicide. Many readers have simplified the message and believed that this is how disappointed lovers should behave.
Massenet’s opera, which is based on the novel, includes elements believed to be autobiographic of Goethe – being a young melancholic hopeless poet who views that world around him through a philosophic prism. His love affair with Charlotte develops in a way that its tragic conclusion can easily be predicted.
Nevertheless, Massenet is trying to avoid pathos and melodrama and his music sheds light on delicate psychologic aspects of the plot. It turns out as a delicate balance between being sentimental and intellectual. This mixture puts a special demand on the cast, calling for charisma and restraint at the same time.
Not all the cast stands up to the challenge. This production of Werther in the Israeli Opera has highlighted again the key role that expectations can play in forming one’s total operatic experience. Opera goers in Tel Aviv enjoy a unique bonus: an hour before the curtain goes up, the veteran Artistic Director of the house Michael Ajzenstadt delivers an illuminating introductory talk. I try not to miss it, but this time there was a downside to it: the high expectation Ajzenstadt has built on tenor Ho-Yoon Chung’s (Werther) singing turned out to be disappointing in the first two acts. He was much more sentimental than intellectual, and the opera house seemed to be too big for his voice.
On the other hand, I had low expectations from Maya Lahyani (Charlotte), the Israel-born Mezzo, who after a long career in America’s greatest opera houses finally made her debut in the Israel Opera. And what a joy she is, with warm voice, high dramatic skills and clear diction. She is definitely the star of this production, alongside two other local talents – soprano Hila Fahima (Sophie) and baritone Oded Reich (Albert).
This production of Fourny uses visuals effect to highlight the psychologic virtues of the opera, in a way which separates the world of Werther from the other characters. The result is a beautifully designed stage, with picture-album-like opening images where all the singers freeze before returning to life. The same can be said about the costume and lightening designers who greatly §contributed to the visual beauty of the production.
Another Israeli debut was for the French conductor Alan Guingal, whose deep understanding of French music in general, and Massenet’s one in particular, was apparent. The Moran choir was charming and professional as always.