Nothing much happens in “Werther,” and it does so very prettily. For its staging of Jules Massenet’s melancholy vapors — based on Johann Goethe’s 1774 archetypal romantic weeper than lured generations of adolescents into suicidal frames of mind — the L.A. Opera has imported a production of comparable prettiness from the excellent opera house at Toulouse, and peopled it with a mostly young cast welded into a fine-tuned musical and dramatic ensemble.
Excellent as it is in most respects, this first venture by local forces into the mauve-and-lavender world of Massenet makes friends slowly; the opening-night crowd thinned noticea-bly after intermission. Compared with the one-two punches delivered by “Carmen” the night before, “Werther” moves at a placid pace.
The tenor in the title role learns in act one that his beloved Charlotte is otherwise betrothed and wails, wails a little more in the next two acts and, to nobody’s surprise, kills himself at the end as Charlotte, to everyone’s equal nonsurprise, fesses that she has loved him all along. Even the couple of hit arias along the way are patchwork affairs compared, say, with “Carmen’s” outpourings or, for that matter, the tunes in Massenet’s better-known “Manon.”
“Werther’s” characters are neither bullfighters nor philanderers; their world is bourgeois and hidebound, and this goes a long way to explain their reticence. The opera opens with a sweet provincial touch: a sextet of kiddies rehearsing a Christmas song; it ends — again, to nobody’s surprise — with the same song resounding in the distance over the tragedy onstage.
Even so, the beauties in the score are deep and genuine; at the Music Center they are tellingly probed. The Charlotte, Paula Rasmussen, is one of the company’s homegrown stars, an intelligent and handsome young singer who began in small roles and now has an international career. The Werther, Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas, has exactly the light-textured, sleek vocal manner (reminiscent, to old-timers in the audience, of Italy’s Tito Schipa of bygone days) to mirror the monotone sadness of his music — and to steer the attention away from his somewhat clunky stage presence.
On Hubert Monloup’s modest, perfunctory sets (which could probably serve a company’s needs for an entire season’s repertory), director Nicolas Joel moves his cast with no false moves. His half-brother, Emmanuel Joel, draws from the local orchestral forces the properly gossamer, wispy sounds: Chanel No. 5 made audible. It’s all very, very French and, as they say over there, splendide.