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ClassicsOnline Home » MASSENET: Werther
Jules Massenet (1842-1912)
Romain Rolland once claimed that the spirit of Massenet sleeps at the heart of every Frenchman. The most successful opera composer of his generation in France, Massenet wrote music that has sometimes inspired cynicism and hostility through its particularly sensuous beauty, a quality that has to some seemed facile and superficial. The criticism itself may now appear in the same terms. Massenet coupled technical command with a gift for graceful melody and exercised a strong influence over his successors, perceptible in the work of Debussy and of Ravel, as of Puccini. The very charm and grace of his music was to earn him the nick-name bestowed on him by his enemies, "la fille de Wagner".
Jules Massenet was born in 1842, the son of a foundry-owner whose prosperity relied on the production of scythes. A decline in business led the family to move in 1847 from Saint-Etienne to Paris, where Madame Massenet supplemented the family income by giving piano lessons, her youngest son among her pupils. At the age of eleven Massenet entered the Conservatoire, where, in 1863, he won the Prix de Rome, his residence in Rome bringing some respite from the period when, as a student, he had found it necessary to support himself by serving as a percussionist at the Opéra and as a café pianist.
Success came to Massenet through the support of his teacher at the Conservatoire, Ambroise Thomas, and of his enterprising publisher Georges Hartmann. In 1872 he won his first operatic triumph with the Victor Hugo adaptation Don César de Bazan, followed, in 1873 by the sacred drama Marie-Magdeleine, a choice of heroine that was characteristic in an age that made much of the repentance of a fallen woman. Manon, in 1884, established his position without question, although the next opera, Le Cid, staged at the Opéra in 1885, failed to please. The coincidence of a new libretto, based on a medieval romance, and a meeting with the young American soprano Sybil Sanderson, lay behind the opéra romanesque Esclarmonde, in which the title rô1e was designed to exploit the remarkable range and quality of the young prima donna. The work was staged at the Opéra-Comique in 1890 and impressed a Parisian audience increased by the Exhibition of 1889.
Massenets opera Werther has a libretto attributed to Edouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hartmann, based on the immensely influential novel by Goethe, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther). Written in 1774, published in the same year and revised in 1786, the novel, regarded by many as epitomizing the Sturm und Drang period of German literature, deals with events supposed to have taken place in 1771 and 1772, reflecting to some extent Goethes own experiences in Wetzlar in the latter year. There he had fallen in love with Lotte Buff, whose situation was similar to that of the Lotte of the novel. Lotte Buff, on the death of her mother, had taken charge of her sixteen younger siblings and was engaged to Johann Georg Christian Kestner, whom she married the following year. Kestners friend, Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, had been in love with another married woman, borrowed pistols from Kestner, and shot himself. Both situations are used in Goethes book, which caused Kestner some offence. Its effect on its wider readership, however, was even more considerable, as young men dressed in the style of Werther, with a blue coat and yellow breeches, and young men and women contemplated suicide for love, an act that the novel seemed to encourage, or, at least, to condone.
The first suggestion of a libretto on the subject of Werther had come from Milliet and Hartmann in 1882 and by 1885 something had been produced, allowing Massenet to begin work on it. He was influenced by a visit with Hartmann to Bayreuth in 1886, when he saw Parsifal and, returning by way of Wetzlar, read Goethes novel for the first time, in a French translation, if Massenets own account of events is to be believed. The French text is by Blau and Milliet, while the publisher Hartmann, generously credited with a share in the authorship and with the provision of the original stimulus, may have sketched out the scenario. Massenet completed the score in 1887, and after earlier refusals and hesitations in Paris it was accepted for Vienna, after the success there of Manon in 1890, to be staged at the Court Opera in a German version in 1892. It had its first performance in Paris by the Opéra-Comique at the Théâtre Lyrique in January 1893, but was withdrawn from the repertoire the following year. There were performances abroad, however, and in other towns in France. It was only ten years later, in a revival under Albert Carré at the Opéra-Comique in 1903, that the work struck home, to retain a firm place ever since in French operatic repertoire. The year was one of continuing success for Massenet, who had four of his works billed at the Opéra-Comique in one week. It also brought sadness in the early death of Sybil Sanderson, who had created the rôles of Esclarmonde and Thaïs, and had achieved such success in Manon. In 1902 Massenet arranged the tenor rôle of Werther for baritone, a version that is sometimes followed.
Act I: The Baillis House
 The opera opens with an initially ominous Prélude. The first act is set in the garden of the Bailli, a local official and Charlottes widowed father. He is sitting on the garden terrace, with his six younger children round him, as he teaches them to sing.  As the curtain rises, there is a burst of laughter from the children, checked by their father [Assez! Assez! (Enough! Enough!)]. They sing their Christmas carol [Noël! Jésus vient de naître (Noel! Jesus is born)], overheard by the Baillis friends Johann and Schmidt, who congratulate the children on their performance [Bravo pour les enfants! (Well done, children!)] but gently mock the Bailli for practising carols in July. They are joined by Sophie, the Baillis second daughter, and talk of the ball to be held at nearby Wetzlar, of Werther, the melancholy young man who is to partner Charlotte to the ball, and of Albert, Charlottes fiancé, who is away. The Bailli promises to meet his friends at the inn that evening, as they take their leave. Sophie leaves and the Bailli goes into the house, where he is seen sitting down, with some of the younger children settled round him, listening to him.
 Werther, accompanied by a young peasant, comes into the courtyard and looks at the house [Alors cest bien ici, la maison du Bailli. Merci
Je ne sais si je veille ou si je rêve encore (So this is the Baillis house. Thank you
I do not know whether I am awake or dreaming)]. He is enchanted by what he sees  and by the sound of the childrens carol from inside the house. Charlotte comes down, dressed for the ball, and the children run to her. As he sees Werther, he greets him and introduces Charlotte, the eldest daughter, who has managed the family since her mothers death.  While Charlotte says goodbye to the children, leaving Sophie to look after them, Werther admires this picture of love and innocence [Ô spectacle idéal damour et dinnocence (O ideal picture of love and innocence)]. Charlotte and Werther set out for the ball, joined now by other couples, while Sophie takes the children into the house and the Bailli prepares to join his friends at the tavern.
 As night falls, Albert appears, greeted by Sophie and explaining that he has come unannounced to surprise them. They talk of his coming wedding.  As he leaves, he muses on Charlottes love for him [Elle maime
elle pense à moi! (She loves me
she thinks of me!)].  An orchestral interlude accompanies the rise of the moon, now night has fallen.
 Charlotte and Werther appear at the garden gate, returning from the ball. They must part here, she tells him [Il faut nous séparer. Voici notre maison (We must part here. This is our house)]. Werther, however, cannot leave so easily, and expresses his love for Charlotte, although they have only just met.  She tells him he knows nothing about her [Mais vous ne savez rien de moi (But you know nothing about me)] but he assures her that he knows her well [Mon âme a reconnu votre âme (My soul has recognised your soul)]. Mention of her children, reminds Charlotte of her mother, whose place she has taken, and whom she still seems to see, looking over their family [Vous avez dit vrai! Cest que limage de ma mère est présente (You have spoken truly! The image of my mother is always here)]. Werther is further enchanted by Charlottes simple goodness [Rêve! Extase! Bonheur! (Dream! Ecstasy! Joy!)].  They are interrupted by the Bailli, who has returned and now calls to Charlotte from the house, telling her that Albert has come back. She explains to Werther that Albert is the one that she swore to her mother that she would marry. She goes into the house, leaving Werther in despair at the news.
Act II: The Lime-Trees
 A Prélude marks the passage of time between the two acts.  The scene is set in Wetzlar. It is now September and Johann and Schmidt are sitting at a table in front of an inn, enjoying the autumn sunshine [Vivat Bacchus! Semper vivat! Cest dimanche! (Long live Bacchus! May he live for ever! It is Sunday!)]. People are gathering on the way to the church, where the minister celebrates fifty years of marriage.  Albert and Charlotte are seen, now married already for three months [Trois mois! Voici trois mois que nous sommes unis! (Three months! It is now three months that we have been together)] and gently happy together. They are observed by Werther, desperate that he has lost Charlotte to another  [Un autre est son époux! (Another is her husband!). Johann and Schmidt return, comforting their friend Brühlmann, who has lost his Käthchen after a seven-year engagement, and followed by Albert.  Seeing Werther, despondent at an inn table, Albert lays his hand on his shoulder and tries to comfort his rival, who responds with apparent understanding [Mais celle qui devint ma femme vous apparut au jour quelle était libre encore (But she who became my wife met you when she was still free)].  Sophie runs in happily, carrying a bouquet and full of the joy that the fine weather brings [Frère, voyez le beau bouquet! (Brother, look at my fine bouquet!)]. She chides Werther for his long face, but he, in an aside, admits that he can never be happy [Heureux! Pourrai-je lêtre encore! (Happy! Can I be happy again!)]. Albert does his best to comfort Werther, while Sophie, as she goes, calls Albert to follow her. Charlotte comes out of the church, where she has sought strength in prayer, while Werther has resolved to go away.  She sees him and asks if he is coming to the ministers, but he can only speak of his love for her [Ah! quil est loin ce jour plein dintime douceur (Ah! How far away is that day, full of intimate sweetness)]. She reproves him, for she is now married to another, and tells him he must go, but he may return, if he will, at Christmas. Left alone, he resolves to obey her, but is haunted by thoughts of death, if he cannot overcome his feelings.  He thinks of a child returning home before he is expected and embraced by his loving father [Lorsque lenfant revient dun voyage avant lheure (When a child returns early from a journey)], finding here consolation for suicide. Sophie returns, calling cheerfully on Werther to join the procession, but he abruptly leaves, telling her he will never come back. In a moment Sophies joy is dissipated, and Charlotte and Albert, who enter with the procession, understand well enough what has happened. Charlotte is daunted by the idea that Werther has gone for ever, while Albert knows that the reason is his love for Charlotte.
Act III: Charlotte and Werther
 A Prélude marks the further passing of time. Now it is five oclock on Christmas Eve in the house of Albert and Charlotte.  She sits at the writing-desk in the drawing-room and is still obsessed with thoughts of Werther [Werther! Werther! Qui maurait dit la place que dans mon cur il occupe aujourdhui! (Werther! Werther! Who would have told me the place that he has in my heart today)]. She has read his letters again and again [Ces lettres . . . ah! je les relis sans cesse (These letters . . . . ah! I read them again and again)]. In one of them he has told her to mourn for his death, if he does not return at Christmas.  Sophie appears, greeting her elder sister and asking what troubles her, in Alberts absence [Bonjour, grande sur! Je viens aux nouvelles (Good day, elder sister! I have come for your news)]. Charlotte is induced to smile but Sophie wishes that her sister would laugh again, as once she used to [Ah! le rire est béni, joyeux, léger, sonore! (Ah! Laughter is blessed, joyful, light, full-sounding!)]. She goes on to regret Werthers absence, which seems to have changed everything.  Now Charlotte can no longer hold back her tears [Va, laisse couler mes larmes (Let my tears flow)], and Sophie begs her to come home again . Charlotte almost agrees, but worries about Werthers implied threat of suicide, if she does not see him by Christmas.  Sophie leaves her and Charlotte prays that she may remain steadfast, seeking strength to perform her duty [Ah! mon courage mabandonne! (Ah! My courage deserts me!)].  Suddenly the door of the room opens and Werther is seen. In spite of his earlier threat to die rather than see Charlotte again, he has been unable to resist [Oui, cest moi! Je reviens (Yes, it is I! I have returned)]. Everything is as he left it, except their hearts.  He goes on to read verses of Ossian that they had once read together on the vain return of spring, soon to be followed by despair and death [Toute mon âme est là . . . Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps? (My whole soul is there . . . Why awaken me, O breath of spring?)].  Charlotte bids him stop and her voice falters, giving Werther hope [Ciel! ai-je compris? (Heavens! Have I understood?)]. Werther reminds her of their love and urges her to admit her continuing feelings, while Charlotte attempts to resist.  In the end she can withstand no longer, and finds herself in Werthers arms [Ah! Moi! Moi! Dans ses bras! (Ah! I! I! In his arms)], only to come to herself and reject his advances, forbidding him her sight, as she flees from the room. Werther tries at first to call her back, but then resigns himself to separation and death [Soit! Adieu donc! Charlotte a dicté mon arrêt! (So be it! Farewell then! Charlotte has decreed my death!)].  Albert now appears, preoccupied and anxious, having heard that Werther has returned and finding the street-door open and the room empty [Werther est de retour (Werther has returned)]. He is joined by Charlotte, agitated at what has passed and afraid, when she sees her husband. A servant brings a note from Werther, about to set out on a long journey and seeking to borrow Alberts pistols that he has seen in the room. Albert grimly tells Charlotte to give the servant the pistols, which she reluctantly does, as he crumples Werthers note and throws it down, leaving the room. Charlotte, praying that she is not too late, rushes out.
Act IV Scene 1: Christmas Eve
 An orchestral interlude sets the new scene, the little town of Wetzlar on Christmas Eve. The moon is shining and snow is falling.
Scene 2: The Death of Werther
 The scene changes to Werthers study, with its table covered by books and papers. The town square is seen through the large open window, with the Baillis house and the roofs covered with snow, under the moonlight. Werther is lying, mortally wounded, as Charlotte rushes in, calling his name [Werther! Werther! Werther!]. Suddenly she sees him and throws herself on him.  He is able to speak and seeks Charlottes forgiveness, but she tells him that she is the one to blame. She wants to seek help, but he restrains her, holding her hand, as he dies.  Now Charlotte can admit that she loves him [Et moi, Werther, et moi je taime! And I, Werther, and I love you!)], seeking a last kiss to forget all sorrows.  The childrens carol is heard, suggesting a hymn of forgiveness, as Werther nears his end, in spite of Charlotte, who seeks to revive him. He can only tell her where he wishes to be buried [Là-bas, au fond du cimetière (There, at the far end of the cemetery)], if he is allowed a Christian burial. Otherwise he must lie in unhallowed ground, sanctified only by a woman who will visit his grave and weep over it.  He dies, while from outside the children are heard singing of Christs birth [Jésus vient de naître (Jesus is born)] and laughing in their delight.
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