In Focus

Jules Massenet

Premiere: Vienna Court Opera, 1892
One of opera’s greatest depictions of impossible love, Werther is based on one of the most influential masterpieces of European literature. Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, was a sensation when it appeared in 1774. Composed as a series of letters and partly inspired by the author’s own experiences, it tells the story of a melancholy poet whose love for a married woman and general disaffection with the world lead to his suicide. The archetype of the artistic, brilliant, and doomed young man rebelling against the political and social establishment has resonated through the ages in literature, theater, film, and music. Massenet’s idea to set Goethe’s story as an opera a century after the book appeared must have struck audiences as a curious choice. Werther was no longer incendiary or even controversial. Yet the composer saw its operatic potential, particularly in the psyche of the title hero and the unspoken emotional undercurrents of his character. It’s a tour-de-force role, with unique musical and dramatic challenges that have made it a prized challenge for many great tenors for more than a century.

The Creators
Jules Massenet (1842–1912), a French composer wildly popular in his day, was noted for his operas, songs, and oratorios. His somewhat sentimental style lost popularity in the early 20th century, with only Manon maintaining a steady place in the repertory. Several of his other operas, including Werther (1892) and Thaïs (1894), have been performed more frequently in the last few decades. Three writers collaborated on the Werther libretto: Édouard Blau (1836–1906), a dramatist and librettist who also worked with Bizet and Offenbach; Paul Milliet (1855–1924), a dramatist active in Paris; and Georges Hartmann (1843–1900), a librettist and music publisher who sometimes used the pen name Henri Grémont. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) is the preeminent figure of German literature and the author of Faust. He was also a well-regarded authority on philosophy, art, and especially music.

The Setting
The novel and opera are set in a small town near Frankfurt, Germany, in the late 18th century. The Met’s new production moves the action to Massenet’s time.

The Music
The conflict between expression and repression that forms the essence of the novel is depicted brilliantly in Massenet’s score. The composer’s gift for elegant melody is immediately apparent, but it’s the deployment and placement of these melodies that raise the opera to its impressive dramatic level. Werther’s invocation of nature at the beginning of Act I sounds like a love aria: the character’s transference of sensual longings onto the cosmos will prove unsustainable and ultimately fatal. Surprisingly, there’s no actual love duet for Werther and Charlotte. Instead, her measured description of her mother’s death in Act I prompts Werther’s great declaration of love, the juxtaposition of these two solos revealing his burgeoning fascination with death. Charlotte’s solo scene in Act III evolves from a chilling depiction of her wrestling the desire to re-read Werther’s letters to the release of emotion in the aria “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes” (featuring an unusual and evocative saxophone solo). Werther’s subsequent aria, the famous “Pourquoi me réveiller,” encapsulates Charlotte’s dilemma in even more direct musical terms: it’s a recitation of his poetic translations that allows him to state covertly what he is forbidden to say plainly. The opera includes no chorus, concentrating all attention on the solo roles. The children’s Christmas carol frames the action: at the beginning, as they are practicing the music in the summer, the song is out of alignment with the season and feels vaguely disturbing. It only becomes “correct” at the end, as Werther dies on Christmas Eve, fulfilling his destiny. Massenet’s use of the orchestra is often light and spare, but with a wide palette of color. Much of the tone remains dark, with the emphasis on low instruments, especially woodwinds. The cascade of sound in the brief orchestral passages, most notably the opening bars of the prelude and the intermezzo between Acts III and IV, are gripping depictions of emotion.

Werther at the Met
was first produced by the Met on tour, in Chicago in 1894, starring Jean de Reszke and Emma Eames. Another production, with Geraldine Farrar as Charlotte, premiered at the New Theatre in New York in 1909 and arrived at the Met the following year—as an opener for the ballet Coppélia, featuring the company debut of ballerina Anna Pavlova. Werther was not seen again until 1971, when Alain Lombard conducted a production by Paul-Emile Deiber that starred Enrico Di Giuseppe (replacing an ailing Franco Corelli) and Christa Ludwig. Corelli took the title role in the remaining 16 performances that season. Other notable performers to appear in that staging include Elena Obraztsova, Régine Crespin, Tatiana Troyanos, Frederica von Stade, Vesselina Kasarova, Plácido Domingo, Alfredo Kraus, Neil Shicoff, and Roberto Alagna. In 1999, Thomas Hampson sang the title character in an alternate version of the score (prepared by Massenet in 1902) that recasts the role for baritone, opposite Susan Graham as Charlotte. Richard Eyre’s new production premieres on February 18, 2014, starring Jonas Kaufmann and Sophie Koch.