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Opera San Jose deserves the thanks of the region's opera lovers for bringing back a masterwork of French operatic art which has had an up and down performing history since its Vienna premiere in 1892. Rejected by Paris' Opera Comique as "too dark," "Werther," from a 100-year-old novel by Goethe, soon became a worldwide favorite before fading totally from view.

The local company brought it to the stage of the California Theater in downtown San Jose last Saturday as the first of eight performances, wrapping up with a matinee on Sunday, Dec. 2.

Pronounced "vehr-tear," from the German, "Werther" as a short piece of fiction, literally shook the European continent by elevating a sorrowing, self-pitying young man to hero status for coming to terms with his inner self. It literally gave birth to a Romantic movement which then saw a flowering of poetry, song and theater works. It also spurred a bunch of copycat suicides mimicking young Werther after he realizes he cannot get the woman he loves because she's already taken.

Bringing "Werther" to the region may well be its first appearance since San Francisco put it on nearly a quarter-century ago. It is an intimate opera with a very slender plot, but Jules Massenet, France's greatest operatic composer of the late 19th century Grand Epoque, was a master of lush melodic orchestration and possessed great psychological insights into musical drama.

The work challenges audiences used to the big sweeping operatic works of the Italian and German repertory. But the audience Saturday was enthralled.

Opera San Jose's resident lead mezzo soprano, Cybele Gouverneur, was perfect for the role of Charlotte, a sturdy devoted daughter who sticks by her promise to marry her dying mother's choice, Albert, a stodgy businessman, sung with appropriate stiffness by baritone Daniel Cilli. Charlotte succumbs briefly but not completely to the importunings of the young poet-courtier Werther, a friend of the family. Since her mother's death, Charlotte and her flighty younger sister, Sophie, take care of a flock of kiddies (sung by the Vivace Youth chorus). Sophie's delightful vocalizing is handled with panache by another first-year OSJ resident artist, Khoori Dastoor.

The role of Werther is sung by the tenor Isaac Hurtado. His melancholic lingering throughout the opera sets a mood of inevitability. We also get many clues throughout that a tragic end is ahead, not the least of which is a set of dueling pistols, prominently left out on a drawing room table. The Werther melancholia in the Goethe novel represents a nagging search for an unreachable goal. Massenet simplifies it to an amorous passion, which cannot be satisfied here on earth.

Although the composer was not religious, he uses a number of devices in which the fated hero gets to believe that God will treat him better in the next life. The children's periodic singing of Christmas carols (the last scene is set on Christmas eve) reminds Werther that these innocent angels will be there for him in his rebirth.

The opera tries to offer up contrasting comedic scenes as well as the bubbling children's singing to leaven the grim progress to the lovesick hero's suicide. A pair of roistering friends get thoroughly soused in a rollicking tribute to the god Bacchus. Taking the roles of Schmitt, sung convincingly by tenor Bill Welch and as Johann, baritone Jo Vincent Parks. The good-natured paterfamilias is the Bailiff performed admirably by resident artist Carlos Aguilar, a hearty basso.

In the process of extracting the maximum emotional draining of our tear ducts, at the opera's last scene, the bleeding Werther finally gets his kisses from Charlotte in one of the most protracted leave takings in all opera.

Massenet's most beautiful music and Charlotte's greatest singing comes in Act Three, where she reviews his letters of longing and despair prior to his return in the fourth and final act. Werther's greatest moment comes after his return and is prompted to read some poetry which becomes the opera's supreme aria "Pourquoi me reveiller, O souffle du printemps" ("Why do you waken me, O tender breath of spring?")

In venturing to open up a somewhat rarely performed section of the operatic treasure house, Opera San Jose forces its audience to enlarge its horizon to encompass a different kind of experience in music drama.

It also picked a vehicle that showcases to advantage the great versatility and talents of its artists. We also need to be grateful to Opera San Jose General Manager Larry Hancock, who was an early and special advocate for including the French masterwork in the current season. If he has his way, we may be lucky enough to experience again some of the other magnificent Massenet works like "Thais," "Esclarmonde," "Cherubin," "Don Quichotte" and more.

But, not to worry if you enjoy the mainstream repertory. Up next for Opera San Jose is Verdi's "Rigoletto," followed by Mozart's "Magic Flute," to round out the season.

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Mort Levine is founder

and publisher emeritus of

Milpitas Post Newspapers.