Read the background notes from Minnesota Opera dramaturg David sander on our upcoming opera Werther.
Werther stands alone in Jules Massenet’s wide-ranging oeuvre of operas. The appearance of a male protagonist submerged in the interior, realistic doom and gloom of Germanic Sturm und Drang is unique to the composer’s typically glittering and vibrant artifice of fin-de-siècle France. Several people claim credit for its genus. Naturally, librettists Paul Milliet and Édouard Blau would like to believe they were the impetus (though several adaptations of Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s literary masterpiece had already seen the stage), and their resulting product stands out among the volumes of typically lackluster French libretti. Milliet encouraged the composer to forget complicated, stagy plots of the earlier generation in favor of those with intense passions unrelated to dramatic events. Massenet’s publisher, Georges Hartmann, recalled how he skillfully arranged everything when he and the composer travelled to Bayreuth to see Wagner’s Parsifal in 1886. During a side trip to Wetzlar where Goethe had written The Sorrows of Young Werther, he produced the novel for Massenet’s immediate perusal, discouraging his interest in adapting Henry Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème(later set by Giacomo Puccini and Ruggero Leoncavallo).
Massenet would recall years later that it was his own conception to write Werther, an idea he fostered at the beginning of the 1880s. Composed shortly after his return to Paris, he lobbied for a premiere at the city’s second theater of rank, the Opéra-Comique. Though already renowned for programming serious works (Bizet’s Carmen would be the most notorious example), the impresario, Léon Carvalho, found the subject too somber, and a deadly fire in 1887 put the project in limbo (and Carvalho temporarily in jail for the resulting human death toll). Werther would sit on the shelf for four more years while an earlier work, Manon, would take Europe by storm. It was Manon’s success at Vienna’s Hofopera that would draw attention the Massenet’s “German” opera and it was finally staged in 1892.
Oddly, Goethe’s works would achieve success in the hands of foreign composers rather than those from his homeland, Faust being the most notable example. Rather than relying on supernatural witches and devils or heaven and hell, the writer turned to an actual experience from his past. As a young man, he fell madly in love with Charlotte Buff, the fiancée of Johann Christian Kestner, a young diplomat. Realizing his one-sided affection for the young woman would not amount to anything, he left Wetzlar, devastated and suicidal. He maintained correspondence with Kestner, from whom he soon learned that a mutual acquaintance, Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, had in fact taken his own life over his own unrequited love for a married woman. Goethe was overwhelmed by the incident and wrote his novel in just one month.
Goethe unfolded his tale in a series of epistles, personal and troubled confessions mostly written to his trusted friend Wilhelm. A few letters are dedicated directly to Charlotte herself and reveal a search for identity through love. Toward the end, however, Goethe shifts the narrative from Werther’s first person to an omniscient editor who sifts through the protagonist’s final writings. The mood is a combination of intense emotionalism and an adoration of wilderness (touched upon lightly in Massenet’s Act I aria for Werther, “Ô Nature, pleine de grâce”), two important components of the blossoming Romantic Age. Eighteenth-century objectivity was falling victim to subjective expression and spontaneity of feeling, as the importance of the individual superseded rational thought. Suicide was the last refuge of Weltschmerz, or the weariness of life to the misguided, agonized intellectual, an affront to the tenants of the Church (consequently, Werther, who renounces God’s benevolence, is notably not buried on consecrated ground). The popularity of Goethe’s novel actually made the taking of one’s own life (or verging on it) a fashionable image – young men adopted Werther’s dress and carried their tears in glass vials, veritable “Emos” of their era. To this date, the “Werther Effect” remains a psychological term for imitative suicide.
Massenet had to make some changes to make Goethe’s piece a little more stageworthy. In the novel, Werther is already informed of Charlotte’s betrothal from the start, and she is unaware (until the very end) that he loves her, but in Act III of the opera, she is given an intensely heartrending scene as she waivers between fidelity to her husband and feelings for Werther. In Goethe’s original, she does not visit Werther as he lays dying – having shot himself just above the right eye, he does not regain consciousness and takes a full twelve hours to expire (significantly on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year). In the opera, we see the rational Albert’s transition from amiable to suspicious to coldhearted as he orders Charlotte to send Werther the pistols. In the novel, he remains Werther’s friend to the very end and is the one to discover and dispense with his body. In contrast, Charlotte’s character is dignified a bit more in the opera as she has promised her deceased mother she would marry Albert and acts as a surrogate parent to the hoard of her siblings. Her casting as a mezzo-soprano fortifies this maternal role. Another added bourgeois touch, no doubt satisfying a demand of the audience, was to include the incongruous singing of Christmas carols as Werther slowly dies – he may not get a Christian burial, but there is still some hope for redemption.
Part of Werther’s complexity is the contrast between light and dark – the happiness of children singing, the comic relief of Schmidt and Johann’s drinking song, the frivolity of Sophie’s ariette, the festivities of the pastor’s golden anniversary – all characteristics expected by Paris’ theatrical crowd. Still, they were puzzled at the French premiere in 1893 by the sharp contrast of idyllic youth with adult gravity and the juxtaposition of sin with sanctity. As a result, Werther was slow to gain acceptance. Still grappling with their first complete glimpses of Richard Wagner at the Paris Opéra in the final decade of the 19th century, likely viewers were unable to see Werther’s true depth – a one-sided Liebestod, an ever-worsening love drama that rushes incessantly toward its dire conclusion.