Werther is an opera (drame lyrique) in four acts by Jules Massenet to a French libretto by Édouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hartmann (who used the pseudonym Henri Grémont), loosely based on the German epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe which was based both on fact and on Goethe's own early life. Earlier examples of operas using the story were made by Kreutzer (1792) and Pucitta (1802).
Massenet started composing Werther in 1885, completing it in 1887 and submitting it to the director of the Paris Opéra-Comique Leon Carvalho that year who declined to accept it on the grounds that it was too serious a scenario. With the disruption of the fire at the Opéra-Comique and Massenet's work on other operatic projects (especially Esclarmonde), it was put to one side, until the Vienna Opera, pleased with the success of Manon, asked the composer for a new work. Werther received its premiere on 16 February 1892 in a German version translated by Max Kalbeck at the Imperial Theatre Hofoper in Vienna.
The French-language premiere followed in Geneva on 27 December 1892. The first performance in France was given by the Opéra-Comique at the Théâtre Lyrique on the Place du Châtelet in Paris on 16 January 1893, with Marie Delna as Charlotte and Guillaume Ibos in the title role, conducted by Jules Danbé, but was not immediately successful.
Werther entered the repertoire at the Opéra-Comique in 1903 in a production supervised by Albert Carré, and over the next half-century the opera was performed over 1,100 times there, Léon Beyle becoming a distinguished interpreter of Werther.
The United States premiere with the Metropolitan Opera took place in Chicago on 29 March 1894 and then in the company's main house in New York City three weeks later. The UK premiere was a one-off performance at Covent Garden, London, on 11 June 1894 with Emma Eames as Charlotte, Sigrid Arnoldson as Sophie, and Jean de Reszke in the title role.
Werther is still regularly performed around the world and has been recorded many times. Although written for a tenor, Massenet adjusted the role of Werther for a baritone, when Mattia Battistini sang it in Saint Petersburg in 1902. It is very occasionally performed in this version.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere Cast, 16 February 1892
(Conductor: Wilhelm Jahn)
|Charlotte, aged 20||mezzo-soprano||Marie Renard|
|Sophie, her sister, aged 15||soprano||Ellen Forster-Brandt|
|Werther, a young poet, aged 23||tenor||Ernest van Dyck|
|Albert, betrothed to Charlotte; aged 25||baritone||Franz Neidl|
|Le Bailli, Charlotte's father; aged 50||bass||Karl Mayerhofer|
|Schmidt, a friend of the Bailli||tenor||Anton Schlittenhelm|
|Johann, a friend of the Bailli||baritone||Benedikt Felix|
|Brühlmann, a young man||tenor||August Stoll|
|Käthchen, Brühlmann's fiancée of seven years||mezzo-soprano||Emma Karlona|
|Children of the Bailli – Fritz, Max, Hans, Karl, Gretel, Clara||children's voices|
|Inhabitants of Wetzlar, guests, servants; off-stage women’s and children’s voices|
2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo) 2 Oboes (doubling English horns) 2 Clarinets in B-flat and A Alto Saxophone 2 Bassoons 4 Horns in F 2 Trumpets (doubling Cornets) 3 Trombones Tuba Harp Timpani Percussion (1) (Bass Drum, Triangle) Harp Strings
- Time: July to December 1780.
- Place: Wetzlar.
The widowed Bailiff teaches his younger children a Christmas carol in July. Charlotte dresses for a ball. Since her intended, Albert, is away, she is escorted by Werther whom they find gloomy. Werther arrives and watches as Charlotte prepares her young siblings' supper, just as her mother had before she died. Werther greets Charlotte and they leave for the ball. Albert returns unexpectedly after a six month trip. He is unsure of Charlotte's intentions and disappointed not to find her here, but is reassured and consoled by Sophie. He leaves after promising to return in the morning. Werther and Charlotte return very late, and he is already enamoured of her. His declaration of love is interrupted by the announcement of Albert's return. Charlotte recalls how she promised her dying mother she would marry Albert. Werther despairs.
It is three months later, and Charlotte and Albert are now married. They walk happily to church, pursued by the gloomy Werther. Sophie tries to cheer him up. When Charlotte exits the church, he speaks to her of their first meeting. Charlotte begs Werther not to try to see her again until Christmas Day. Werther contemplates suicide. He encounters Charlotte's younger sister Sophie but the tearful girl does not understand his distressing behavior. Albert now realizes that Werther loves Charlotte.
Sung by Charlotte in Act III. Sung by Jeanette Ekornaasvaag.
|Problems playing this file? See media help.|
Charlotte is at home alone on Christmas Eve. She spends time rereading Werther's letters to herself, wondering how the young poet is and how she had the strength to send him away. Suddenly Werther appears, and while he reads her poetry, he realizes that she returns his love. They embrace for a moment, but she quickly bids him farewell. He leaves with thoughts of suicide. Albert returns home to find his distraught wife. Werther has sent a message to Albert requesting to borrow his pistols, explaining he is going on an extended trip. A servant is sent to deliver the pistols. Charlotte has a terrible premonition and hurries to find Werther. (An orchestral intermezzo leads without a break into the final Act.)
At Werther's apartment, Charlotte has arrived too late. Werther is dying. She consoles him by declaring her love. He asks for forgiveness. After he dies, Charlotte faints. Outside children are heard singing a Christmas carol.
A well-regarded recording of the complete opera was made in January 1931 by French Columbia with a French cast and the orchestra and chorus of the Opéra-Comique under the direction of Élie Cohen. Henry Fogel of Fanfare magazine, writing in 1992, counted 14 complete recordings and considered it the finest of the lot. His colleague, James Camner, reviewing the Opera d'Oro reissue in 2003, called it "one of the treasures of recorded opera. ... Unfortunately, the transfer is over filtered. The high frequencies are lost, giving the performance an unwarranted flatness. Happily, Naxos offers the same recording expertly transferred by Ward Marston, and acquiring it is a must." Alan Blyth, while giving a very positive review of the reissue of the recording with Albert Lance as Werther and Rita Gorr as Charlotte in 2004, nevertheless pointed out that "neither quite has the ideal subtlety of the best Massenet singers, such as Vallin and Thill on the classic, pre-war set, now on Naxos".
In addition, many of the greatest French and Italian singers of the past century or more have recorded individual arias from Massenet's masterwork.
- Milnes R. Werther. In: The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Macmillan, London and New York, 1997.
- Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed., 1954
- Wolff, Stéphane. Un demi-siècle d'Opéra-Comique (1900–1950). André Bonne, Paris, 1953.
- MetOpera database
- Werther page at the French Art Lyrique webpage accessed 5 September 2014.
- Fogel, Henry (September/October 1992). Review of the recording with Georges Thill as Werther (EMI CHS 7 63195 2). Fanfare, 16 (1). Accessed November 16, 2010. Subscription required.
- Camner, James (July/August 2003). Review of the recording with Georges Thill as Werther (OPERA D’ORO OD 1366). Fanfare, 26 (6). Accessed November 16, 2010. Subscription required.
- Blyth, Alan (March 2004). "Werther's Return". Gramophone, p. 83. Accessed November 16, 2010.
- Recordings of Werther on operadis-opera-discography.org.uk
- Details of this recording of Werther on amazon.com
- Details of this recording of Werther on amazon.com
- Performance, both conductor and singers, are reviewed quite favorably by Matthew Gurewitsch in Opera News (February 2011, p. 66). He has strong reservations about the production and the video direction, however.
- Details of this recording of Werther on DeutscheGrammophon.com
- Upton, George; Borowski, Felix (1928). The Standard Opera Guide. Blue Ribbon Books, N.Y. pp. 187–8.
- Kobbé, Gustav (1976). The Complete Opera Book. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. pp. 864–9.
- Huebner, Steven (2006). French Opera at the Fin de Siecle: Werther. Oxford Univ. Press, US. pp. 113–34. ISBN 978-0-19-518954-4.