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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Opera Moves to Railroad Platform, Disappoints

Stanislavsky and nemirovich-danchenko musical theaterLarisa Andreyeva as Charlotte and Sergei Balashov as Werther in Goethe’s story of a man turned suicidal by love.

In the staging of opera these days, it has become quite the fashion among directors and designers to move the action to a time and place different from those specified in the opera’s libretto. Which is all well and good, if the changes somehow illuminate the story and allow the musical performance to proceed unhindered.

Moscow has seen highly successful shifts of both time and place in Novaya Opera’s versions of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Nabucco,” which is set in some unspecified fascist country during the 1930s, and Gioacchino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” where the time is the 1920s and constructivist architecture serves as the scenic background. It has also witnessed some failures, most notably, of late, the Bolshoi Theater’s modern-dress production of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen,” which ridiculously turns the story into a charade played out within the confines of a cigarette factory.

The new staging of French composer Jules Massenet’s “Werther” at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater, which made its debut there late last month, belongs, I’m sorry to say, among productions of the latter kind. No harm was done by moving the action forward from the 1770s, its setting in both the libretto and the underlying story taken from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” to the 1890s, when the opera was written. But the decision of director Mikhail Bychkov and designer Emil Kapelyush to site the action entirely on a railroad platform seemed entirely at odds with the intimate nature of the drama and did nothing that I could discern to cast any meaningful new light on the story.

The opera tells the tale of a young artist named Werther who, settling temporarily in the provincial German town of Wetzlar, falls in love with Charlotte, a daughter of the local Bailiff (or, as he seems in Bychkov’s staging, the town stationmaster). Charlotte, as it turns out, has promised herself to a certain Albert and soon marries him. But Werther persists in visiting her. Eventually, Charlotte begs him not to visit so frequently. In a state of utter depression, Werther asks to borrow Albert’s pistols, proceeds to shoot himself and dies in Charlotte’s arms.

Perhaps I made a mistake on the eve of the premiere last month in re-listening to the almost 80-year-old classic recording of “Werther” that features the greatest French tenor of the 20th century, Georges Thill, and the leading French soprano of the day, Ninon Vallin. I didn’t go to the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko the following evening expecting to hear anything of that caliber. But I was more than a little astounded by how very far short most of the singers fell in achieving anything like authentic French vocal style or accurately pronouncing the French text. Perhaps the theater might have been better advised to present “Werther” in Russian, as was the case in all previous Moscow productions, starting with its local premiere at the Bolshoi in 1904.

Style and pronunciation aside, both the singing and the acting left much to be desired. Most commendable of all in either of the two casts were the wonderfully bright soprano voice and lively stage presence that Natalya Petrozhitskaya brought to the role of Charlotte’s sister Sophie.

Tenor Sergei Balashov gave a mostly stylish vocal performance of the title role. But his all-too-generous form and curious mannerisms on stage came nowhere close to suggesting the romantic figure described in Goethe’s novel. Balashov has a fine voice, but I can’t help but think, as I have at past performances, that his future career would be greatly enhanced were he to exercise a bit of discipline both in trimming his physique and in ridding himself of those mannerisms of his that seem likely over time to become increasingly annoying. The other Werther, Anton Orlov, proved stiff in both voice and in stage demeanor.

Director Bychkov gave neither tenor a real chance to shine in the famous aria “Pourquoi Me Reveiller,” thanks to placing them sprawled on the floor, their heads resting on a pile of books, for much of the music’s brief span.

Larisa Andreyeva played the role of Charlotte with considerable elegance, but sounded raw-voiced whenever called upon for volume in the middle register. Her counterpart, Yelena Maksimova sang quite beautifully, but acted without much purpose or conviction.

Bass Roman Ulybin gave an appropriately genial account of the bailiff. In the alternate cast, the gravelly voiced Dmitry Stepanovich brought along his all-too-familiar bag of scene-stealing tricks, turning the bailiff into little more than a caricature.

Musically, the best to be found in the new “Werther” was conductor Felix Korobov’s unusually sensitive interpretation of the orchestral score.

“Werther” (Verter) next plays on Oct. 19 at 7 p.m. at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater, located at 17 Bolshaya Dmitrovka. Metro Chekhovskaya, Pushkinskaya. Tel. 650-23-93, Stanmus.ru.