TENOR RAMÓN VARGAS – A Worthy “Werther” At San Francisco Opera

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

Jules Massenet’s WERTHER has always been a showcase for the strong lyric tenor. Ramón Vargas is definitely that voice. His appearance last season as “Nemorino” in L’Elisir d’Amore was outstanding. Vargas is a superb musician – a Singer’s Singer. He is a radiant presence and versatile actor. He is compelling and persuasive and the love energy is super high. When it was announced that Ramón Vargas would play the title role in this season’s Werther, the immediate response was – “Of course!”

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RAMON VARGAS – as Jules Massenet’s “Werther”
Photo, Cory Weaver

Ramón Vargas admits that “Werther” is one of his favorite roles having performed it at the Vienna State Opera, Madrid’s Teatro Real, Monte Carlo and Mexico City. He gave us a beautiful rendition of the well-known Act III aria, “Pourquoi me réveiller?”. After the non-climactic but sustained lyricism of the previous two Acts, it was well worth the wait. Come the intermission, some folks decided not to wait.

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Set design by Louis Désiré. Photo, Cory Weaver

The Massenet opera is not loaded with the variety of aria or ensemble that either invites applause or is so potentially thrilling that an enthusiastic audience might interrupt and override the flow of the score and the will of the Conductor and applaud anyway. The need and opportunities are just not there. The characters are not well-defined and the plot seems to be much ado about plenty of nothing. In fact, the overall atmosphere of the opera is downright dismal. There’s not much going on in the neighborhood, not a party in sight, Charlotte’s mother has just died and now she’s saddled by a gaggle of younger sibblings and a solemn promise to her dead mother – for whatever reason – to marry a man who hasn’t been around for six months. Enter Werther, a poet prone to melancholy and gnawing obsessions. At the moment and until he ends it all with a pistol – he’s confounded by his love for the unavailable and stand-offish Miss Charlotte. Maybe it’s just writer’s block. There is so nothing-to-do in this district that even the local bailiff is obsessed with teaching the children Christmas carols in July. Overheard in the rows between scenes, “These people need to get out more often.”

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CHRISTIAN Van HORN – The Bailiff. Photo, Cory Weaver

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ALICE COOTE (as Charlotte) and RAMÓN VARGAS
Photo, Cory Weaver

Why, then, the popularity of the opera? For most, Werther is an acquired taste. It was true even during the composer’s own time. Massenet sets his 1887 score to a 1774 novel by the young Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther. The opera’s Paris premiere was stalled by six years. Its eventual place into sort-of standard repertoire seems to be driven by the popularity and enthusiasm of the available tenor and the fact that “Werther” sits beautifully in the tenor range and is one of the best melodramatic / psychologically askew roles for just the right guy. His Act III aria is a popular concert and recording choice. The same is true in the same Act for the mezzo-soprano. Commonly known as “The Letter Scene”, Charlotte’s extended aria, Werther! Qui m’aurait dit la place, provides the recitalist (or contestant) ample opportunity to display vocal and dramatic skills. In this production, director Francisco Negrin places “Albert” – Charlotte’s absentee fiancé and overly bland husband (baritone Brian Mulligan) – by her side as she reads Werther’s love letters. A-ha! Things are not quite what they seem for the dutiful bride. At last.

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Brian Mulligan (Albert) and Alice Coote (Charlotte).
Photo, Cory Weaver

Production designer Louis Désiré makes a noble attempt in his set design to capture the isolation, frustration, and ennui of the situation. Even the trees are wrapped and trapped in metal sleeves, a framed illustration hangs in front of the top branches to indicate the seasonal changes. Beside Werther’s bed, a large screen TV projects videos of Charlotte. Her pictures cover his bedroom wall. He scrawls her name for everyone to see. It’s been a while since he’s written anything else. Over at Charlotte’s, the dead mother’s belongings have been piled up so long that it was just easier to throw dust covers over it all rather than go through the pain and drudgery of contacting Goodwill or Community Thrift. Interesting. But not for long.

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Wether is not the right stuff for the annual “Opera At The Ballpark”. A quarter of a century has passed since SF Opera’s last production of Werther starring Alfredo Kraus and soprano Renata Scotto as Charlotte. For Massenet’s fans, that is a very long time. See it now.
Click here to purchase tickets on-line: WERTHER

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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