One of the saddest regressions in Baltimore’s cultural life has been on the operatic front, with the gradual fading away of professional, fully staged productions. The last company to attempt them, Lyric Opera Baltimore, went dormant a few years ago, awaiting firmer funding. Whether it ever comes back is anyone’s guess.
This makes Baltimore Concert Opera, now in its ninth season, all the more welcome a presence. Its current offering is a worthy presentation of Massenet’s brooding, uber-romantic “Werther.”
Although opera in concert form isn’t as satisfying as the staged variety — even less so when performed with only piano accompaniment, as is this case with this company — there’s something to be said for concentrating solely on the music. There’s much more to be said for it if the caliber of vocal artists is high enough.
The “Werther” cast hits the mark quite well, sensitively guided from the keyboard by conductor Rachelle Jonck.
Based on the Goethe novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” Massenet’s exquisitely crafted opera underlines every emotion in a story about impulse, idealism and thwarted love. The persuasive, involving piece exerts a hold from the sweet opening to the elongated death scene for hapless Werther.
On Friday night, Brian Cheney dug deep into the title role, providing an affecting portrayal (he never just stood and sang), matched with consistently stylish vocalism. The tenor’s voice sounded a bit dry and tightened at the top, but that proved a minor disappointment in light of so much poetic phrasing, so many nuances of dynamics.
Chrystal E. Williams likewise impressed as Charlotte, the woman who catches Werther’s fancy before he learns that she is duty-bound to another. Williams used her plush mezzo to keen effect, especially in the last two acts, sculpting phrases with communicative weight.
As Albert, Charlotte’s betrothed, baritone Andrew Pardini sang elegantly. Bright-toned soprano Vanessa Becerra, as Charlotte’s younger sister Sophie, made up for missing her cue at the end of Act 2 (that caused an awkward pause) by putting even more spark into her subsequent singing.
Vibrant efforts came from the rest of the soloists. And members of the Children’s Chorus of Maryland handled their pivotal, atmospheric scenes with finesse.
Jonck did remarkable work. With only an occasional nod of the head or left-hand cue, she kept things on a smooth track, all the while providing a highly expressive foundation for the performance at the piano.