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Lyric makes clear the worth of Massenet’s neglected ‘Werther’

Tenor Matthew Polenzani mezzo Sophie Koch Massenet's 'Werther' Civic OperHouse. | Stacie Scott~Sun-Times Media

Tenor Matthew Polenzani and mezzo Sophie Koch in Massenet's "Werther" at the Civic Opera House. | Stacie Scott~Sun-Times Media

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◆ Through Nov. 26

◆ Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker

◆ Tickets, $34-$259

◆ (312) 332-2244;

Updated: December 14, 2012 6:11AM

In exploring darker corners of the repertoire (in terms of both subject matter and popularity), Lyric Opera of Chicago has hit three for three this season.

Lyric began with the fin-de-siecle Austro-German angst of “Elektra” by Richard Strauss and moved to the brooding Verdi of “Simon Boccanegra.” Now, with a heavy dose of French ennui in Jules Massenet’s “Werther,” Lyric music director Andrew Davis completes a successful fall trilogy and proves he has entered a period of his career marked by tremendous flexibility, capturing depths and styles of genres not always associated with him. He is back in February with Wagner (“Der Meistersinger von Nuernberg”), another composer where Chicago was the site of Davis fully coming into his own.

“Werther,” an adaptation of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” has not been seen at Lyric in almost 35 years, and both productions in the 1970s featured tenor Alfredo Kraus in the title role. (Mezzos Tatiana Troyanos and Yvonne Minton played Charlotte, the object of Werther’s obsessive attention.) In a way, “Werther” had both suffered and benefitted from the thinness of Massenet’s other works. Scented, soupy concoctions as “Thais” and “Herodiade” pulled Massenet’s reputation down, but they also made many forget just how effective “Werther” can be with intelligent singers and conducting.

Hometown tenor Matthew Polenzani, an alumnus of Lyric’s Ryan Center training program, had become well-established in this sort of repertoire. Remarkably, Sunday afternoon’s opening performance marked his role debut as the self-tormenting Werther. He was up to every aspect, from his Act 1 outbursts when he first sees and falls instantly in love with Charlotte to his physical expressions of inner resentment and hope to his famous Act 3 aria “Pourquoi me reveiller.”

Remarkably, too, French mezzo Sophie Koch as Charlotte was making not only her Lyric but her U.S. debut. Hailed for her Mozart in Salzburg and as Fricka in the new Paris “Ring” Cycle, she is a total singing actress, attractive in every way with a voice that is rich yet gentle. As Charlotte’s little sister Sophie, second-year Ryan Center soprano Kiri Deonarine has a French sound and quality, with a mystical, narrow vibrato, down so perfectly that you might have thought you were listening to a rare and valuable recording of the 1920s.

Each of these characters moves through this new co-production (first seen in San Francisco in 2010) by Barcelona-based Francisco Negrin as if in a set of interlocking and overlapping dreams. At first it can be puzzling and annoying to wonder why character A is present during character B’s solo meditation and vice versa. But inside the brilliant physical dreamscapes of French set and costume designer Louis Desire and onetime Lyric house lighting designer Duane Schuler, you see how Negrin is taking his characters very seriously, well beyond the wall engravings they are so often presented as. No one, I think, will ever figure out what to do with Werther’s endless Act 4 death scene, long the stereotype in both fiction and opera of the suicide of the young romantic. But Negrin’s idea actually allows Werther and Charlotte to sing standing up and to move back and forth between their psychological and physical selves.

Craig Verm succeeds in making Charlotte’s intended and then husband Albert three-dimensional as well, and among the Ryan Center singers in small roles, first-year tenor John Irvin makes a strong and characterful debut. Veteran character baritone Philip Kraus is fine in the thankless (and needless) role of the sisters’ father.

With Davis and the ever-rejuvenating Lyric Orchestra providing the musical support and context — weaving Wagner style in lightly, giving Puccini harmonic material — this production rehabilitates a work too often neglected and maligned.

Andrew Patner is critic at large at WFMT-FM (98.7).

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