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SARASOTA - Massenet's Werther is the opera for tragically sensitive young men. Based on Goethe's novella The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the masculine ideal was turned on its head to value poetry and romance over bourgeois practicality, it calls for a tenor who can deliver aria after aria to unrequited love without becoming a pathetic bore.
Rafael Davila is a suitably ardent Werther in the Sarasota Opera production. Though any nuances in the role elude him, he has the size of voice that can get through the thick orchestration of Massenet, whose opulent sound was French opera's answer to Wagner.
Werther is obsessed with Charlotte, who is married to another man, all but taking her hostage erotically in their encounters. One of the most powerful scenes takes place outside a church in Act 2, and Davila passionately rendered it, undeterred by a momentary vocal break on opening night. His singing of the third-act aria, Pourquoi me reveiller, was unrelenting, almost overwhelming in its self-pity.
Saturday's opening took a dramatic turn when artistic director Victor DeRenzi came onstage between the second and third acts to announce that Megan Dey-Toth, the mezzo-soprano singing Charlotte, had suffered a back injury and would be replaced by Kellie Van Horn.
After a delay while Van Horn, a studio artist with the company, got into costume, she launched into Charlotte's solo Christmas Eve letter scene in which she ponders Werther's anguished correspondence to her. Alertly responsive to the emotional arc of the text, she captured Charlotte's chilling realization that her swain might commit suicide.
Because Van Horn was thrust so abruptly into the middle of the opera, she could never achieve a star-is-born success; the performance was just too far along for the change to be anything but a disruption. Still, she did a superb job of saving what could have been a disaster, singing with accuracy and poise.
She didn't get much help from the pit, where conductor Steven White had the orchestra playing too loud and covering Charlotte. Balances, iffy in the first two acts, became a pronounced problem in the finale.
Meredith Barber, as Charlotte's younger sister, Sophie, was a delightful soubrette. Justin Ryan, as Charlotte's husband, Albert, was properly upright, and his recognition at the Act 2 curtain that Werther loved his wife was just right.
Werther is a tricky balancing act, veering from realistic intimacy to high-flown rhetoric. Judging from the first two acts with Davila and Dey-Toth (who returned to the cast Tuesday), director Ira Siff had worked effectively with them to find the refinement and seriousness that exists amid the sentimentality of the work.
Sarasota Opera performs Massenet's Werther at 8 p.m. today, March 10 and March 13, and 1:30 p.m. Sunday and March 20. Sarasota Opera House, 61 N Pineapple Ave. $17-$96. Toll-free 1-888-673-7212 or (941) 366-8450.[Last modified March 4, 2004, 01:15:01]
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