It takes a wonderful performance to make a weak opera sing. I think Massenet's Werther is, aside from some beautiful music, a dramatically questionable and sometimes unintentionally humorous piece, but a deep cast of talented vocalists such as in Sarasota's production of Werther is pretty persuasive. Based on Goethe's suicide-inspiring novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, Massenet's 1892 opera seems dramatically untenable. Werther spends three acts whining and promising his suicide but all the time looking through his tears to see if his act is working on Charlotte, who is married to another man. And Werther's final act is one of the funnier examples of a character singing long and well after sustaining a fatal wound.
There is some lovely music, however, and the Sarasota Opera did its best with Werther.
Chief among the talented cast was mezzo-soprano Jane Brunnell as the confused Charlotte. Brunnell has an instantly likeable voice. Warm and glowing in the softest registers and thrilling and burnished at louder volumes, she is engaging and comfortable on stage.
This opera doesn't warm up for me until the third act, when Charlotte finally reveals an inner life beyond her apparent duty-bound reactions. Brunnell's version of the Air des larmes, when she reads Werther's letters of love to her, was moving.
The third act also contained the best moments for tenor Douglas Wunsch as the title character. Before the third act, Wunsch's idiosyncratic vibrato, puffy figure and childish acting dominated. In the third act Wunsch settled down, stopped his mugging and sang an emotion-filled love song, Pourquoi me reveiller.
Soprano Mary Paul, as Charlotte's bubbly sister Sophie, showed a sparkling voice and stage presence that made one wish her role were larger. Her light, lilting voice leaps into the theater, and her work in the third act showed a flexibility that was effortless.
Bass Kevin Glavin, as the Bailiff, has matured vocally and dramatically since his work in Sarasota last year on Rigoletto and Die Fledermaus. Glavin moves more comfortably and projects his voice with greater ease as well.
Conductor Arthur Fagen carries with him impressive credentials from appearances with the Metropolitan Opera, the Munich Philharmonic and the Frankfurt Opera, but Saturday night he seemed weak and without vision. His beat pattern is uncomfortably vague about the location of the downbeat, and time between the vocalists and the Florida Orchestra was often not in agreement.
Fagen was not adept at handling larger assemblages, and it is no coincidence that the third and final acts, which deal with no more than two people at any one time, were the tightest and most effective of the evening.
The Sarasota Opera: Massenet Werther. Douglas Wunsch, Jane Brunnell, Mary Paul, Kevin Glavin, Arthur Fagen conductor. Performance was 8 p.m. Saturday at the Opera House, 61 N Pineapple Ave. in Sarasota. Further performances 8 p.m. today, Thursday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $12.50 to $35 and are available by calling 953-7030.