Werther, Opera by J. Massenet
Werther – a name that has come to symbolise passion, longing, despair, and ultimately death – set most of Europe ablaze when Goethe first published his epistolary novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) in 1774. Jules Massenet took the work’s complex and incendiary emotions and put them into music like no other composer could. Those who attend this performance at the Gran Teatro La Fenice will realize this for sure, too.
As a composer, Massenet often gets called out for his limited emotional range. However, Werther is as strong a proof as any of the contrary. In this truly emotive work, the French composer seemingly let the title character into his heart and felt the same fabled sorrows as him while he was working on the score. The end result is among Massenet’s most sensitive and involved without ever veering into the melodramatic.
Werther stays true to Goethe’s original and follows the tragic love that blossoms between Werther, a young man seemingly not fit for this world, and Charlotte (Lotte), the fiancée of his friend Albert. While both of them feel a spark, Werther lets it grow into a booming fire, while Lotte decides to put it out, choosing instead to stay true to her betrothal to Albert. Unable to process the mismatch between his hopes and fantasies on the one hand and reality on the other, Werther chooses to end his life.
Massenet started working on his Werther in 1885. He recruited the help of three librettists – Georges Hartmann, Édouard Blau and Paul Millet – to adapt Goethe’s original for the operatic stage. Two years later, Massenet submitted the completed work to Leon Carvalho, then-director of the Opera-Comique in Paris, who immediately rejected it as way too serious. Werther’s sorrows seemed to continue.
Massenet’s masterpiece found its fitting premiere at the Imperial Theatre in Vienna on 16 February 1892, translated into German by Max Kalbeck. After resounding success there, it triumphed across Europe and remains an oft-performed classic to this day.
The music in Werther is inseparable from the drama. While most of the heartbreak and pain are internal, Massenet’s evocative score helps bring them out. Look out for Lotte’s ‘Letter Scene’, where conformity wins over passion, and for Werther’s heart-wrenching ‘Pourquoi me réveiller’ soon after.