Libretto by Edouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hartmann.
Based on Goethe’s novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’) of 1774.
First performed at the Vienna Opera, 16 February 1892
[First of all, so that there can be no doubt about it, a note about pronunciation. Goethe’s story was written in German, and Werther, as well as the other characters who appear in it, must have their proper German pronunciation. It should be pronounced Vare-tare, with the stress on the second syllable. The French pronunciation is the same.]
The story of the opera
Very few stories have managed to merge truth and fiction so effectively that the boundary becomes indiscernible. And very few stories have sparked off such an extreme reaction from an entire generation that young people chose to commit suicide as a consequence of their passionate association with a supposedly fictional character. And very few stories can still arouse powerful emotions over 200 years after it was first written. The story of Werther does all these things, and the combination of Goethe’s moving, virtually autobiographical narrative, combined with the heady beauty of Massenet’s music, has produced for modern opera audiences as profoundly moving and shocking an experience as can be found on a stage anywhere. Goethe’s novel itself is a revelatory glimpse into both the brightest and the darkest sides of human relationships, and it sparked off many operatic versions, but it is the opera by Jules Massenet which most brilliantly caught the spirit of the original.
It will probably help you to get that bit closer to the story if you know the ages of the principal characters: Werther is 23 and Albert 25. The widowed Bailiff is 50 and his two oldest children are Charlotte, who is 20 and Sophie, who is 15.
After a Prelude, the curtain rises on the courtyard of the Bailiff’s house in the small German town of Wetzlar (it is never explained in the text what his real position is, but the frequently-used translation of ‘le Bailli’ as ‘magistrate’ is too legal to be entirely accurate – ‘land agent’ is nearer the mark). It is July in the 1780s. The house is to the left, with a wide bay-window and a terrace covered with greenery which is reached by a set of wooden steps. The garden is to the right, and in the background there is a small, latticed gate; there is a fountain towards the front. The Bailiff is sitting on the terrace, surrounded by six of his children, teaching them to sing a Christmas carol: they sing it too coarsely – it is only July and they cannot take it seriously and he tells them that their sister must be able to hear every word clearly, so they sing it again, more seriously. Although it seems inconsequential as the opera starts, this July / Christmas device sets a time frame for the action of the opera.
Johann and Schmidt, two friends of the Bailiff, come into the courtyard and pull the Bailiff’s leg about teaching his children to sing a Christmas carol in July. As his friends ask the Bailiff to join them for a drink at the inn, a teenage daughter, Sophie, comes in: she explains that her older sister, Charlotte, is getting ready to go to a ball. Johann and Schmidt comment that several other people are also preparing for the ball – one has got his best coat ready, another had borrowed a horse, and two have got their carriages out; even Werther seems to be a bit less dreamy than usual. Werther, they say, is a pleasant enough fellow, well-read but a bit moody and not much of an eater. They observe that the Prince apparently thinks a lot of him and has promised him a post as a diplomat, but diplomats are not much use at eating or drinking. Johann and Schmidt remind the Bailiff that it is the day for fresh crayfish at the local inn, The Golden Grape, and then they ask him when Albert is to return. Albert is clearly Charlotte’s fiancé. The Bailiff tells them that Albert has written to say that his business dealings are going well and they comment that he will make an ideal husband for Charlotte and that they are all looking forward to the wedding. They leave, and the Bailiff sends Sophie off to see what Charlotte is doing as he and the other children go into the house to rehearse the carol again – they sit in the bay window.
Led by a country lad, a young man enters the courtyard, it is Werther. He thanks the boy, and launches into a passionate hymn of praise for nature – “O Nature, intoxicate me with your perfumes, you mother, eternally young, adorable and pure, O Nature! And you, O sun, immerse me in your rays”. He hears the children rehearsing the carol and observes how the innocence of youth is better than the life he has. Charlotte joins the family and the Bailiff comments on how pretty she looks in her ball gown. Charlotte says that since the others in the Ball party have not yet arrived, she will give the children something to eat. The Bailiff notices Werther and welcomes him, clearly he is one of the other guests who will accompany Charlotte to the ball. The Bailiff introduces Charlotte to Werther, explaining that since his wife died, Charlotte has been looking after the younger children, and Charlotte apologises for the delay, saying that the children expect her to make their meals. Other guests arrive, including a couple called Brühlmann and Käthchen, obviously immersed in one another. As Charlotte entrusts the children to Sophie, Werther comments on the enchanting picture of innocence the family presents, and then the Ball party leaves.
Sophie encourages her father to join Johann and Schmidt at the Golden Grape and he leaves. Another man now arrives, it is Albert, returned at last. Sophie greets him happily and he explains that he has returned after six months away to surprise Charlotte. Sophie tells him that Charlotte has gone to the ball, but that they have been preparing for the wedding in anticipation of Albert’s return. Albert is overjoyed, and goes off, happy in the knowledge of Charlotte’s love.
Several hours pass, and the stage darkens (in the Goethe novel, the ball is described in great detail, and Werther gradually becomes besotted with Charlotte, but in the opera, the events of the ball itself are not referred to). As moonlight illuminates the house, Werther and Charlotte return from the ball. Charlotte says that it is time for sleep, but Werther declares that he will never sleep again, nor care whether it is night or day – he will be indifferent to everything but Charlotte. She replies that he hardly knows her, and she tells him about her mother’s death and the sadness of the children when the ‘men in black’ came to take their mother away. This inflames Werther’s passion even more and he declares his love for Charlotte. Just as he asks when he can see her again, her father calls out to tell her that Albert has returned. The moment is broken: Werther asks who Albert is, and Charlotte tells him, sadly, that Albert is the man whom her mother made her promise to marry, and that, momentarily, in the pleasures of the ball and Werther’s attentions, she had forgotten that promise. As Charlotte goes into the house, turning one last time to look at Werther, he bursts out in a despairing cry, un autre son époux! (‘another man her husband!’).
Two months later: it is a fine sunny afternoon in September. Johann and Schmidt are sitting in front of the inn in the main square of Wetzlar. The protestant church is in the background, with lime trees in front of it under which is a bench; the rectory is on the left. The inn is to the right. Johann and Schmidt comment on what a nice day it is, how they prefer to praise the Lord by enjoying His bountiful gifts rather than by going to church, and how the minister is shortly to celebrate his golden wedding. Schmidt observes that fifty years of marriage is all right for a minister, but he would not have been able to put up with it for as long as that. Johann points out Albert and Charlotte, who have come into the square, and says that they look like having the same sort of happiness. The friends go off into the inn, leaving Charlotte and Albert to comment on the happiness of the first weeks of their marriage. They move off towards the church and Werther appears, watching them intently. He drops onto the bench, and calls out in anguish the same words he used at the end of the first Act – un autre son époux! He cries out that she could have loved him, but that just as the sky was opening in brightness for him, he saw it close again. Johann and Schmidt emerge from the inn, this time with Brühlmann, broken-hearted that after seven years of engagement, he has now separated from Käthchen. As they drag him off to the minister’s golden wedding celebrations, Albert comes in and sees Werther, sitting in abject misery. He greets him and explains frankly that he is aware of Werther’s feelings towards Charlotte and understands them. Werther says that if his memory of the past were bitter, he would have gone far away, but that he feels now only a deep friendship for Charlotte.
Sophie runs in with a posy of flowers and tells Werther that on such a happy day he must join them for the party. Albert and Sophie leave, and, alone again, Werther realises that he was lying about friendship – his love for Charlotte is undiminished. Charlotte appears and she realises that Werther still loves her. She tells him to leave and to forget her – but to return at Christmas. Werther, torn between his own feelings and his desire to please her, muses on the nature of separation and death. He is about to leave when Sophie returns and encourages him to join her. Abruptly, he leaves, telling her that he is going away for ever. The golden wedding party enters and Charlotte finds Sophie in tears – she tells Charlotte that Werther has gone, never to return.
It is 5pm on Christmas Eve. In the drawing room of Albert and Charlotte’s house, Charlotte is sitting alone. She has been thinking of nothing but Werther, and re-reads his letters to her: in one, he writes of his loneliness, and in another, he mentions that she had asked him to return at Christmas, but that he had left for ever – commenting “we shall soon know which of us spoke the truth”. He has written that Charlotte will weep for him, and shudder, and as she reads his letters, she has a terrible feeling of foreboding.
Sophie comes in and asks why Charlotte has not been to see the family so much – she says that Charlotte’s hands are cold and her eyes are red, and she tries to cheer her sister up. Charlotte is deeply troubled, but agrees to go back home for Christmas. Sophie leaves, and as Charlotte prays for help, Werther enters the room. He confesses that he had intended to stay away, but that he could not resist the desire to see Charlotte again. She tells him that he has not been forgotten, and he looks round at the familiar things which surround Charlotte – the harpsichord to which they sang together, the books they shared, even a pair of pistols which Werther says made him impatient for the rest he yearns for. Charlotte shows him a book of Ossian’s poems which he had begun to translate, and he quotes one of them in one of the most heart-rending arias ever written – “Why awaken me, O breath of Spring?” (Pourquoi me réveiller, O souffle de printemps?). Falteringly, Charlotte begins to confess her feelings, but she holds back, as Werther pours out his love for her. Eventually she falls into his arms, then, realising what she has done, she rushes from the room, telling Werther that her despairing soul must leave him forever.
Werther declares that he will die and he too rushes away. Albert now returns and, finding the street door open, questions Charlotte. Before she can reply, a servant arrives with a message from Werther – “I am leaving on a long journey; would you lend me your pistols? May God guard you both”. Albert coldly tells Charlotte to let Werther have the guns.
There is a lengthy entr’acte which explores the contrasting emotions of the main characters, during which, in one film version of the opera, Charlotte rushes through the town to find Werther. The curtain then rises to show Werther’s study: a table filled with books and lit by a candlestick is in the centre, and out of a window at the back, snow-covered houses can be seen – the windows are lit in the Bailiff’s house. Werther is slumped over the table: he has shot himself and is dying.
Charlotte enters and sees Werther – she wants to get help, but he prevents her. He tells her that he will die happy if he can just be with her. Charlotte finally confesses that she has always loved him, and as she kisses him, the children’s voices can be heard singing the Christmas carol. As Charlotte holds him, distraught, Werther tells her where he wants to be buried (beneath two lime trees at the far end of the churchyard) – he says that a woman will come secretly to his grave and that her tears, shed over his body, will bless him. He dies, and as Charlotte collapses over his body, the voices of the children can be heard as they continue to sing the carol, welcoming Christmas Day.
There are many recordings on CD and DVD of Massenet’s Werther available (and Werther himself has been recorded both as a tenor – as Massenet wrote him – and as a baritone). You may have your favourite singers, in which case you will not appreciate any advice from me, but if you are choosing a recording from scratch, remember that both Werther and Charlotte are young people, in their mid-twenties, so especially on a DVD they should look young. Goethe’s story The Sorrows of Young Werther can be found in many good English translations. If you don’t know the opera at all, then try to read Goethe’s book first – you will get far more out of the opera if you realise where it has come from.
Other OperaStory articles related to Werther are on
- Goethe and his contribution to opera
- Goethe’s real-life involvement in a Werther-like love triangle
- Jules Massenet’s life and operas
- Werther’s librettists
- Massenet’s involvement with the Werther story and the circumstances in which he wrote it
- The first performance of Massenet’s Werther
- Other operas which are also based on the Werther story
- The weird story of Mayr’s opera Verter
- The Werther legacy
- Ossian: a great literary hoax
- Other opera-related hoaxers: Fiona MacLeod, Thomas Chatterton, Pierre-Augustin de Beaumarchais and Lorenzo a Ponte
- The crayfish which are served at The Golden Grape and which are such an enticement for Charlotte’s father and his two friends
- Lime trees for the Opera Garden
- Places to visit which are related to the Werther story
© Roger Witts 2008