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Also published in The Rover.

In the golden days of opera, critics wore two pistols and audiences ritually burned the weakest cast member and ate them. Or forced the director to eat them, depending on whether they were delicious. It was around this time that an important critical methodology was discovered: Drink a tincture of ships’ caulking in ether and go watch a performance. Did you feel anything?

The bartender only had a bottle of asbestos solvent, but what the hell, art is a damned fine mistress even if she cuts you sometimes. (My Standard Opera Companion never, ever does.) So three hours later, I am swimming in a lovely blue-green tidal pool I’d found in my mind and considering the Werther that we had just seen.

Typically, I excoriate the cast (perfectly okay), the direction (the 1930s were a tragic time, super), the set design (vintage contemporary), or conducting (superb). But today I will turn to a dead man, composer Jules Massenet — he who once told the critic Vincent d’Indy that “I only compose such trifles for the public.”

Werther is based on Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther; not considered the poet’s best work, but it established his early fame. The simple premise of a sensitive young poet’s impossible love for a married woman and its high interior drama make for captivating reading but deadly theatre. The unhelpful libretto takes insufficient liberties, it relies on time compression and bigger roles for characters like Werther’s love object Charlotte and her sister Sophie, which do not overcome the psychological inertia of the text. And Massenet’s score is the anaemic sister who sweeps the whole soulful mess into the rubbish bin.

The first act was like watching tripe boiling. The second could only seem better, and the third and fourth had three tragic moments that got laughs instead. After all that emotional simmering, I would not even call this opera lukewarm. Perhaps there were moments of beauty, whether lyrical as in Werther’s tremendous “Pourquoi me réveiller?” or musical as the more elegant of Massenet’s musical droppings, but they were bites of flavour in a tepid and lardy sea.

If you would enjoy dropping an oar the first time you are rowing a boat and following ten thousand tiny circles back to shore, then this is the opera for you. Werther continues its spiral into depression and suicide at Place des Arts, January 29, 31, and February 9.