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‘Werther,’ often unjustly neglected, offers a primal power

Tenor Matthew Polenzani (right) Sophie Koch run through dress rehearsal for oper“Werther” Friday October 26 2012. I Stacie Scott~Sun-Times Media

Tenor Matthew Polenzani (right) and Sophie Koch run through a dress rehearsal for the opera “Werther” on Friday, October 26, 2012. I Stacie Scott~Sun-Times Media

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◆ Opening Sunday and running through Nov. 26

◆ Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Dr.

◆ Tickets, $34-$259

◆ (312) 332-2244;

Updated: December 9, 2012 7:25PM

Although Jules Massenet’s “Werther” is regularly performed in Europe, the opera remains a relative rarity on American stages.

Consider that in the last decade, just 17 productions of the work have been mounted by member companies of Opera America, compared with 130 stagings of another French classic: the ever-popular “Carmen.”

Perhaps even more surprising is that when the Lyric Opera of Chicago opens its new version of “Werther” on Sunday, it will be the first time the company has presented the work since 1978.

For the artistic collaborators working on this staging, a co-production with the San Francisco Opera, such neglect is puzzling. Sure, Italian opera is more popular with many fans than its French counterpart, and this story of a love triangle going tragically awry is undoubtedly dark. But they are quick to note that “Werther” also has so much to offer, starting with the sheer beauty of its music.

“The best of Massenet has a very special kind of color and elegance, and his greatest moments are supremely moving. There are many of them in ‘Werther,’ ” said Lyric’s music director Andrew Davis, who will lead this production. “The exchanges between and Werther and Charlotte and also their big solos are among the greatest music he ever wrote.”

Unlike some spectacle operas, “Werther,” written in 1892, has no chorus and no grand musical effects. Instead, it is an intimate piece with what Davis describes as “orchestral textures that are very delicate and full of wonderful colors.”

It focuses on the forbidden love between the poetic dreamer Werther and Charlotte, who has recently married a man chosen by her mother but cannot shake her feelings for the other beau. In the end, unable to have her and seeing no other option, Werther kills himself.

Though the opera is called “Werther,” the title of the Goethe novel on which it is based, the work really centers on Charlotte, who goes from unquestioningly fulfilling her societal duty to discovering the primal power of love.

“She keeps trying to do the right thing and by trying to do the right thing for everybody, she destroys her life,” said Francisco Negrin, the Barcelona-based director who’s staging Lyric’s “Werther.” “Her evolution is an unbelievably well-written, sophisticated and interesting psychological study that Werther is the catalyst for.”

Because the characters are so vividly drawn, Negrin said his main job is bring them to life in more than just a superficial way. Instead, he has tried to “show the audience how the characters really get from A to B in detail, and really do an X-ray of that moment where things really change.”

To heighten the psychological drama and enhance the music’s power, Negrin has made several small modifications to the story. Among the most significant is staging the usual Act 3 union between Werther and Charlotte as a fantasy in her mind and delaying their coming together until the often overlooked orchestral interlude leading to Act 4. “So I let people see what she is refusing, what she only senses she wants, what she represses, and then in a fantasy, we see that she would actually like that, and then she does it,” said Negrin, referring to Charlotte’s acting on her love for Werther.

In the role of Charlotte is acclaimed French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch, who is making her American debut. Opposite her as Werther is tenor Matthew Polenzani, a Lyric Opera regular (and Ryan Center alum), who is performing the role for the first time.

Polenzani, an Evanston native, said he deliberately put off taking on Werther. He wanted to wait for his voice to season and to gain a bit more life experience, so that he could better understand the fatal choice the character makes.

“The music is A+,” he said. “I love singing ‘Manon,’ which is also by Massenet, but I like this music better. I like this character better. There is a lot to dig into.”

Kyle MacMillan is a locally based free-lance writer.

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