Anything For Love: Massenet's 'Werther'

From The Opera Bastille In Paris

In 2001, U2 and lead singer Bono came up with a Grammy-winner called "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of." The title sounds a bit flip, but the song is deadly serious. And it shares a subject with the story of this week's opera, Jules Massenet's Werther.

The Hit Single

The opera's most popular aria is "Porqouis me reveiller" — "Why awaken me" — from Act Three. This recording is from tenor Rolando Villazon's 2006 Grammy-nominated collection of French arias.

Werther first hints at suicide in Act Two, with "Oui, ce qu'elle m'ordonne" — "Yes, anything she commands" — which includes the line, "Do we offend heaven by ceasing to suffer?" This recording is also from the collection by Rolando Villazon.

Susan Graham and Rolando Villazon i

Charlotte (mezzo-soprano Susan Graham) arrives too late to save the suicidal Werther (tenor Rolando Villazon) in Massenet's opera, from Paris. Opera national de Paris/Bernd Uhlig hide caption

itoggle caption Opera national de Paris/Bernd Uhlig
Susan Graham and Rolando Villazon

Charlotte (mezzo-soprano Susan Graham) arrives too late to save the suicidal Werther (tenor Rolando Villazon) in Massenet's opera, from Paris.

Opera national de Paris/Bernd Uhlig

Bono wrote the song after the apparent suicide of his close friend Michael Hutchence, singer of the band INXS. Bono says the lyrics represent a conversation with his friend that never actually happened — a sort of intervention Bono wishes had taken place before Hutchence's death.

The song's tough-minded sentiment ("You gotta stand up straight / Carry your own weight") dispels the long-held and strangely popular notion that suicide, especially in the name of love, is somehow a romantic, even noble thing to do.

It's hard to believe that the act itself could possibly seem romantic, and surely suicide is nothing but tragic for the people left behind. Still, the U2 song is the exception rather than the rule; the romantic portrayal of suicide seems far more prevalent in art and music than the more hard-edged approach Bono took to the subject.

That romantic notion has long proven irresistible in all kinds of dramatic entertainment, including Massenet's Werther — the tale of an idealistic young man who might have escaped a grim end if those who loved him had come to his side before he made his final, tragic decision, instead of afterward.

The opera is based on a 1774 novel by Goethe that was inspired by an actual event: the suicide of a young man who was in love with a married woman. The novel, called The Sorrows of Young Werther, was an early influence on the Romantic literary movement, and its wide popularity made Goethe an international celebrity.

Massenet's operatic version of the popular story was completed in 1887, but the Opera Comique in Paris turned it down, saying it was too depressing. The opera's premiere took place in Vienna in 1892, and it wasn't heard in Paris until the following year.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a production, from the Opera Bastille in Paris, that caused a sensation for reasons quite apart from opera itself. Tenor Rolando Villazon was scheduled to sing the title role, but was forced to pull out of the opening-night performance due to health trouble. He then fought through those problems and took to the stage later in the production's run. Since then, Villazon has undergone successful larynx surgery and says he's on the road to a full recovery.

In the Paris production, Villazon stars opposite mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as Charlotte, with Kent Nagano conducting.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story Of 'Werther'

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.

Susan Graham and Rolando Villazon

Susan Graham and Rolando Villazon play Charlotte and Werther at the Opera Bastille in Paris. Opera national de Paris/Bernd Uhlig hide caption

itoggle caption Opera national de Paris/Bernd Uhlig

WHO'S WHO?

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.

Purchase Featured Music

Gounod, Massenet: Arias

Purchase Music

Purchase Featured Music

Album
Gounod, Massenet: Arias
Artist
Rolando Villazón
Label
Virgin
Released
2005

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