Major Operas | Werther by Jules Massenet | Turn of the Century

In comparison to Manon, Werther is the romantic dreamer, totally lost as he sees his beloved Charlotte marry another man. But his music – a seductive, rocking melody where he and Charlotte at once express the strength of their love and the necessity to deny it in the face of social pressure – etches itself on the audience’s heart. Here is the core of the opera, and the reason for its immortality.

All the elements of unfulfilled love in the context of a loveless but socially acceptable marriage are explored, with Werther’s jealousy of the marriage bed and Charlotte’s tearful re-reading of his youthful love-letters. The setting of all this at Christmas brilliantly intensifies the emotional pitch, as does Massenet’s use of the saxophone, one of many ways in which he knows how to wring the heartstrings to maximum effect. Another is the way in which the scene with the dying Werther is framed, having committed suicide. It is Christmas day, turning full circle in the opera that began with the rehearsal of the same Christmas carol with which the opera ends: children’s voices are heard as he dies. This is crisis at Christmas. By now, Massenet had learnt to manipulate all the stock-in-trades to maximum effect, and was particularly brilliant at the heart-rending aria.

Composed: 1885–87
Premiered: 1892, Vienna
Libretto by Edouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hartmann, after Goethe’s novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers

Act I

Le Bailli is rehearsing a carol in his garden with his six younger children. His friends Johann and Schmidt tease him that it is July. Nearly everyone, including Werther, a somewhat melancholy young poet, is going to a dance at Wetzlar. Sophie, Le Bailli’s second daughter, will be staying at home, but the eldest, Charlotte, is getting ready. Werther appears, hymning the simple joys of nature, and listens to the carol. Charlotte gives the children their tea. Le Bailli introduces Werther to Charlotte, who has looked after the household since his wife died. Werther is enchanted as Charlotte kisses the children goodbye. They leave for the dance. Albert, Charlotte’s fiancé, returns unexpectedly after six months away and asks Sophie not to tell anyone until the morning. Later Charlotte returns with Werther. While the poet rhapsodizes, Charlotte insists that he knows nothing about her. She greatly misses her mother and hopes she has kept her promise to look after the others. He declares his love for her. Le Bailli tells them of Albert’s return. Under Werther’s spell she had almost forgotten she had promised her mother to marry him. Werther tells her to keep the promise, even if it means his death.

Act II

It is a Sunday afternoon in September in Wetzlar. Johann and Schmidt are drinking. Charlotte and Albert are now married, and he asks if she has any regrets. Werther watches as she reassures Albert and they enter the church. Furiously he declares that Charlotte should have been his. Albert tries to console him,...

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