Werther de Massenet: guide to his lyrical masterpiece and his best recordings

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Created just three months before Massenet’s 50th anniversary, Wether is a work of the composer’s maturity, produced at a time when he was both highly experienced and highly successful, with a sequence of acclaimed scores – including Le Roi de Lahore, Hérodiade, Manon, Le Cid and Esclarmonde – already at his asset.

When did Massenet write and compose his opera Wether?

Werther’s the origins, however, go back much further. One of the three librettists responsible for this lyrical adaptation of a famous epistolary novel by Goethe, Paul Milliet described how the idea for the work came about during a trip he made with Massenet and the publisher of the composer (and in this case also the librettist) Georges Hartmann to attend the first Italian performances of Hérodiade in La Scala, Milanin February 1882.

Other accounts give somewhat later starting points, and at some point another librettist – Édouard Blau – was engaged. Meticulous in dating his manuscripts, Massenet seems to have begun writing Werther in the summer of 1885, completing the vocal score on March 14, 1887. The orchestration began the following day and continued until July 2.

Curiously, given his later popularity in the theater, Wether was initially refused by Léon Carvalho, director of the Opéra-Comique, for being “too gloomy”. But in any case, the theater itself burned down in May 1887, making an immediate Parisian production out of the question. Massenet then seems to have sat on the score for five years, waiting for an auspicious occasion to have it performed under more favorable circumstances – which finally happened when the director of the Viennese Court Opera asked him for a new work following the huge local success of Manon. This is how Werther was premiered in Vienna in German translation on February 16, 1892, with the French premiere given by the Opéra-Comique company at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris on January 16, 1893.

We named Massenet one of the greatest French composers of all time

What is the story behind Wether?

Set in the small German town of Wetzlar – a historic location in Goethe’s partly autobiographical story – around 1780, the opera’s dramatic center is the love between the hypersensitive young poet Werther and Charlotte, a young woman whose father is a pillar of local society. Following a promise made to her dying mother, Charlotte half-heartedly marries the respectable but dull Albert – whom she does not love.

Refusing to accept that he has lost her, Werther becomes increasingly unstable and eventually commits suicide, dying in his arms in the opera’s final scene. Ironically, this dark tale is framed by references to the Christmas party: in the opening scene, which takes place in July, Charlotte’s father, the Bailli (or usher), is already having his youngest children rehearse children a carol that they will sing on Christmas Eve. Dismissed by Charlotte because he refuses to accept the fact of his marriage, Werther learns that he could return, yes, at Christmas. Which he does, of course. Following an increasingly desperate confrontation between the two, however, Werther borrows Albert’s pistols, leaves for his lodgings, and shoots himself. Concerned for his well-being, Charlotte rushes after him to find him dying: he succumbs just as the voices of the children are heard from the wings, singing their song again.

The two central characters and their repressed relationship are at the heart of the play. Werther is an individual who represents the nascent romanticism embraced by Goethe himself, which then resonated tumultuously throughout Europe. There is, however, a softer side to Werther’s nature, as the score shows, particularly in his opening pantheistic hymn, or in the rapturous, luminous and understated “Moonlight” love scene at the end. of the first act. Elsewhere, the main character’s extreme volatility drew something very dark and even frenetic out of Massenet. Around him the harmonies shift and creak, the orchestra bursts with unruly emotion, and his vocal line rushes and sweeps over a wide range. This contrasts sharply with the musical characterization of Albert, whose harmonies are solid but placid, and whose vocal line moves in small, deliberate steps. Caught between the two, Charlotte begins as a vision of maternal security, her own music more delicately written and more subtly harmonized than Albert’s – but equally moving within circumscribed boundaries. Yet Werther triggers something in her. It’s almost as if she’s infected with her own lack of restraint, so that in their grand third-act showdown, she’s drawn, melodically and harmonically, into his world of heightened subjective passion.

We named Werther one of the best Christmas operas of all time

The best recordings of Wether

Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Roberto Alagna (Werther), Angela Gheorghiu (Charlotte) et al; London Symphony Orchestra/Antonio Pappano

Warner Classics 735 9542

Pappano is an expert conductor with a wide range of musical sympathies. In his first recording of Werther – originally made for EMI in 1998 but now available on Warner Classics – his unerring combination of mastery and flexibility provides the basis for a powerful interpretation, with extraordinary but entirely appropriate surges of passion. Pappano’s “pit” orchestra here is the LSO, whose color palette is as wide as one could wish, so that Massenet’s ingenious orchestral writing stands out just as well on any set. No other opera composer can beat his talent for accurately depicting the exact mood of individual scenes via tonal painting: each is assigned its own set of distinct colors and all are depicted here vividly.

The famous “Moonlight”, for example, when Werther and Charlotte return from a ball after falling in love with each other, simply shines with sensuality in the moonlight. For their part, the engineers capture the details of the LSO’s distinguished playing in overall excellent sound. The French birth and education of the tenor Alagna allow him to deliver an idiomatic reading of the title role, ardent but sensitive and above all marked by a passion at first restrained but which ends up becoming ungovernable. He’s matched well by Angela Gheorghiu, who retains an essential inner sadness in “Moonlight” while elsewhere allowing Charlotte’s true feelings to come closer to the surface sooner than most representatives of the role. In a role taken on by both mezzos and sopranos, her lower range is convincingly harnessed, while throughout her deeply musical and thoughtful narrative, her gaze gazes into the character’s inner depths. While offering precision, Patricia Petibon as Sophie seems every bit as light and buoyant as the teenager she’s meant to portray (Massenet’s cast list suggests Sophie is 15, Charlotte 20, and Werther 23) . Thomas Hampson paints a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of an overly serious Albert, Le Bailli by Jean-Philippe Courtis keeps his feet on the ground and the small roles are all skilfully performed by French singers. Pappano also made a second recording in 2011, live from Covent Garden, with Rolando Villazón in the title role and Sophie Koch in the role of Charlotte (on DG). That’s also commendable, although the Mexican tenor can’t quite match Alagna in the title role.

Michel Plasson (conductor)

Warner Classics 3091132

Michel Plasson’s long career includes a longstanding commitment to 19th-century French repertoire and Massenet in particular, and this 1979 recording benefits significantly from his stylistic assurance. Few representatives of the title role can match the refinement and delicacy of Alfredo Kraus’ direction – a true master class in lyrical characterization. Full of emotion, Tatiana Troyanos’ Charlotte is never overdone, while two French singers – Christine Barbaux and Matteo Manuguerra – add distinction as Sophie and Albert respectively.

Michel Plasson (conductor)

Decca 074 3406 (DVD); 074 3826 (Blu-Ray)

Here is Plasson again, this time in a production daringly conceived by director Benoît Jacquot, originally presented at the Opéra Royal and here revived at the Opéra Bastille in 2010. Fully engaged both vocally and physically, Jonas Kaufmann evokes a romantic presence whimsical like the suicidal poet, while Sophie Koch’s Charlotte corresponds to him note for note and blow for blow: their confrontation in Act III is thrilling. Anne-Catherine Gillet’s sparkling Sophie and Ludovic Tézier’s severe Albert round out the central quartet convincingly.

Elie Cohen (conductor)

Naxos8110061-62

Manufactured since 1931, WetherThe first recording of is still a classic. Its cast is led by Georges Thill, whose heroic approach to the title role doesn’t preclude considerable nuance, singing opposite Ninon Vallin, whose vital tone encompasses bags of personality as soprano Charlotte (apparently intended initial of Massenet). With the rest of the cast, conductor and choral and orchestral forces all linked to the Opéra-Comique (where opera had been a mainstay of the repertoire since 1893), the style is authoritative, even if the sound is his own. era.

Read our reviews of the latest Massenet reviews

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