The opera has four acts, all set in a small German town near Frankfurt. ACT ONE takes place in July, at the home of the town's bailiff, or mayor. He's a widower left with two daughters — 20-year-old Charlotte and 15-year-old Sophie. There are also several younger children, whom Charlotte cares for.
Opera national de Paris/Bernd Uhlig
Susan Graham and Rolando Villazon play Charlotte and Werther at the Opera Bastille in Paris.
Opera national de Paris/Bernd Uhlig
Rolando Villazon ........... Werther
Susan Graham ........... Charlotte
Adriana Kucerova ........ Sophie
Ludovic Tezier ............ Albert
Alain Vernhes .......... The Bailiff
Christian Jean ......... Schmidt
Christian Treguier .... Johann
Paris National Opera Orchestra and Children's Chorus
Kent Nagano, conductor
As the act opens, the bailiff is teaching his children a Christmas carol in the garden of their house. Two neighbors, Schmidt and Johann, watch their progress with amusement. They ask after Charlotte, who's engaged to a man named Albert. The Bailiff tells them that Albert is away, so Charlotte will be escorted to a local ball that night by a visitor — a young poet named Werther.
As the bailiff goes into his house, Werther arrives. We quickly learn that he's a very romantic young man. He rhapsodizes on the beauty of the evening, and watches intently as Charlotte cuts bread for the children's supper.
After Werther and Charlotte leave for the ball, Albert returns unexpectedly. Unhappy at finding Charlotte out for the evening, he tells Sophie that he'll call again in the morning.
Later, as the moon rises, Werther and Charlotte return. He has already fallen in love with her, and tries to tell her so. But his declaration is cut short when the Bailiff passes by, saying that Albert is back in town. Werther is deeply disappointed, but he still urges Charlotte to keep her promise to marry Albert.
ACT TWO opens three months later. Charlotte and Albert are now married, and they walk contentedly across the town square on their way to church, followed by a sullen Werther. Albert and Sophie try to cheer Werther up, but he starts talking about the first time he met Charlotte.
Hearing this, Charlotte tells Werther that it would be best for everyone if he left town. But her heart seems to say otherwise. To strangely ominous music, she also sings, "Why forget me?" Immediately thereafter, to rather seductive music, she tells Werther that even when he's gone, he should think of her fondly. She also suggests that he should return for a visit — maybe at Christmas.
When she leaves, Werther thinks longingly ahead to the Christmas holiday. But he knows deep down that it's a false hope and makes his first reference to suicide, reflecting on eternal peace and saying, "Do we offend heaven when we cease to suffer?" Sophie approaches him, and Werther tells her that he's leaving town forever.
When he's gone, Sophie tells Charlotte what Werther has just said. From her reaction, Albert realizes that Werther is still in love with Charlotte. And Charlotte herself worries about Werther, wondering exactly what he meant by "forever."
ACT THREE opens on Christmas Eve in Albert's house. Charlotte is home alone, rereading the desperate letters Werther has written to her. She knows that she still has feelings for him. While she's praying for strength, Werther unexpectedly appears in the doorway. Charlotte tries to remain calm and asks him to read to her from some work he's been doing — translations of ancient poetry.
To some of the opera's most familiar music, Werther sings "Pourquoi me reveiller" — "Why do you awaken me" — a passage in which the poet foresees his own death. When Charlotte begs him to stop, Werther realizes that she still loves him. They embrace, but she quickly pulls away, saying that she can never see him again, and runs from the room. Werther leaves the house, determined to die.
When Albert comes home, he's surprised to find Charlotte distraught on Christmas Eve. Knowing that Werther is back in town, Albert asks Charlotte what's bothering her. Nothing, she says. Then a servant arrives with a message. It's from Werther, who says he's leaving on a long journey, and wants to know if he might borrow Albert's pistols for protection.
Charlotte tries to control her reaction, but her husband realizes that she still loves Werther. Albert orders her to fetch the pistols and give them to a servant, to be taken to Werther. When Albert then leaves the room, Charlotte hurries after the servant, praying that she can reach Werther before it's too late.
ACT FOUR takes place in Werther's study, and begins with a brief orchestral movement called "Christmas Eve." As it ends, we hear a gunshot and Charlotte rushes in, calling for Werther. She finds him lying in a pool of blood, barely alive. She wants to go for help, but Werther stops her. Charlotte says it's her fault, that she's loved him all along, and they kiss for the first time. Outside, excited children sing Christmas songs. As Werther dies, he imagines that he's hearing angels who grant him forgiveness.