ACT I. In the garden of his house in Wetzlar, the Bailiff teaches his younger children a Christmas carol, though it is only July ("Noël, Noël!"). His cronies Johann and Schmidt drop by to invite him to a neighboring inn. As the Bailiff's daughter Sophie enters, the three men comment on the seriousness of young Werther, an acquaintance. Schmidt then asks when Albert, the Bailiff's future son-in-law, will return to Wetzlar, but the old widower does not know. He goes into the house to await Charlotte, his eldest daughter, who is engaged to Albert. Werther enters and, left alone, rhapsodizes on the beauty of the scene ("O nature, pleine de grace"); the sound of happy children heightens his sense of well-being. When Charlotte appears, he draws aside as she prepares the evening meal for her brothers and sisters. The Bailiff introduces Charlotte to Werther, who in Albert's absence is to escort her to a ball. Charlotte's friends, on their way to the party, are greeted by Sophie, in whose charge her sister leaves the children. Werther, struck by Charlotte's kindness and charm, falls in love with her ("O spectacle idéal d'amour et d'innocence"). The couple leaves, and Sophie sends her father to join his friends at the inn. Albert arrives unexpectedly and is disappointed not to find Charlotte at home. He and Sophie discuss the forthcoming nuptials. After lingering briefly in the garden to voice his love for Charlotte ("Quelle prière de reconnaissance et d'amour"), Albert departs. In the moonlight, Charlotte and Werther return from the ball. In response to his declaration of love, she pleads family responsibilities ("Il faut nous séparer"). The Bailiff passes by, observing that Albert has returned. Charlotte explains that as her mother lay dying she promised to marry Albert; then she runs into the house. Werther despairs that Charlotte will belong to another man.
ACT II. By the town square, three months after Charlotte and Albert's marriage, Johann and Schmidt sit before the inn, while inside the church the congregation celebrates the pastor's golden wedding anniversary. Johann and Schmidt enter the inn as the contented Albert and Charlotte walk to church ("Voici trois mois"). They are followed by the dejected Werther, who sinks onto a bench ("J'aurais pressé sur ma poitrine"); he is surprised when Albert appears and tries to comfort him. Deeply moved, Werther pledges friendship. Sophie, noticing his sadness, attempts to cheer him by asking for the first dance that evening ("Du gai soleil"). After she and Albert leave, Werther cries that he still loves Charlotte, who now comes out of the church. Passionately, he recalls the time they first met ("Ah! Qu'il est loin ce jour"); she coolly reminds him that she is now a married woman. When he insists he can never love another, she tells him he must leave Wetzlar until Christmas. Werther, left alone, contemplates suicide, reflecting that God might receive him as a father would a child who returned early from a journey ("Lorsque l'enfant revient d'un voyage"). When Sophie gaily interrupts him, he rushes away with hardly a word. The tearful girl is comforted by Charlotte, who is visibly moved. Albert observes to himself that Werther loves his wife.
ACT III. Alone on Christmas Eve, Charlotte clutches Werther's despairing letters and admits how much he means to her (letter scene: "Je vous écris de ma petite chamber"). Fearfully, she reads the last letter, in which he suggests she will soon have cause to weep for him. Sophie bursts in, laden with Christmas toys, and tries to make light of her sister's depression ("Ah! le rire est béni"), but when she mentions Werther, Charlotte weeps brokenheartedly ("Va, laisse couler mes larmes"). Alone, she prays for strength. Suddenly Werther appears. Charlotte, trying to appear calm, tells him nothing has changed. Failing to notice his preoccupation with a pair of Albert's pistols, she hands him verses by Ossian that he has started to translate for her; he begins to read of storms and sorrows ("Pourquoi me réveiller"). When Charlotte can no longer bear the pain in his words, he interprets her tears as a confession of love. He woos her ecstatically ("Ah! ce premier baiser, mon rêve et mon envie"), but she runs from his embrace with a final farewell. Werther leaves, resolved to kill himself. When Albert summons Charlotte and questions her about her distracted look, she becomes confused. A message arrives from Werther asking to borrow Albert's pistols; with seeming indifference, Albert tells Charlotte to give them to the servant. Terror-stricken, she does so. The moment Albert leaves, she runs out into the night, praying that she may find Werther in time to stop him (interlude: La Nuit de Noël).
In Werther's room, Charlotte finds him mortally wounded. Confessing she has always loved him, she kisses him ("Et moi, Werther, et moi, je t'aime"). As the distant sound of the children's happy Christmas carols punctuates his delirium, Werther welcomes death, asking to be buried in a favorite corner of the churchyard.
Born in 1842, Jules Massenet came of age in the Meyerbeer-influenced Paris Opera, and his first success, Le Roi de Lahore (1877), succeeded more from his theatrical sense than from his music. Massenet's gift for melody came to full flower with Manon (1884), which caught a sense of intimacy paralleled in France only by the bedroom scene in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. Massenet continued this achievement with Werther (1892). The composer's strength lay in his ability to describe romantic adventures with piquant musical phrases that capture the sound and feel of everyday French conversation. Though many of his contemporaries saw him as frivolous, and he made money from these works and, later, Thaïs (1894) and Sapho (1897), he never failed to explore new extensions of his style. He completed some thirty operas before his death, in 1912.
In Werther, the composer turned to a masterpiece of the late eighteenth century, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther. The novel was written as a series of letters from Werther to his friend Wilhelm, describing his unrequited love for one Lotte; when the young man becomes so distracted he can no longer correspond, Goethe (as editor) takes over and describes Werther's innermost thoughts from then until his suicide.
Writing a century later, when romanticism was dying, Massenet's librettists, Édouard Blau and Paul Milliet, with editor Georges Hartmann, subtly changed the character of the piece. In the novel, Lotte does not seem even to suspect, much less reciprocate, Werther's love until their meeting just before his death. In the opera, she seems to marry Albert out of duty but to be consciously in love with Werther.
Werther was written for the Opéra Comique in 1887, but because of a fire that destroyed the theater, the work's premiere was in German translation at the Vienna Hofoper, on February 16, 1892, with heroic tenor Ernest Van Dyck. Successful there, it found its way to Paris the following year. Werther had its U.S. premiere (by the Met) in Chicago only a few weeks before its first Metropolitan Opera House performance, in April 1894, with Emma Eames and Jean de Reszke. In 1902, the composer rewrote the title role for the great baritone Mattia Battistini.
© Copyright 2011 The Metropolitan Opera Guild, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
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