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Massenet’s Werther: a guide to his operatic masterpiece and its best recordings

George Hall chooses the finest recordings of Massenet’s 1892 operatic masterpiece, Werther, one of the festive period’s bleaker works

Massenet’s Werther: a guide to his operatic masterpiece and its best recordings
Published: July 5, 2022 at 4:53 pm

Premiered just three months before Massenet’s 50th birthday, Werther is a work of the composer’s maturity, produced at a time when he was both highly experienced and highly successful, with a sequence of acclaimed scores – including Le roi de Lahore, Hérodiade, Manon, Le Cid and Esclarmonde – already to his credit.

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When did Massenet write and compose his opera Werther?

Werther's origins, however, go back much further. One of the three librettists responsible for this operatic adaptation of a famous epistolary novel by Goethe, Paul Milliet described how the idea for the work arose on a trip he made with Massenet and the composer’s publisher (and in this instance also librettist) Georges Hartmann to attend the first Italian performances of Hérodiade at La Scala, Milan, in February 1882.

Other accounts give somewhat later starting points, and at some point a further librettist – Édouard Blau – was taken on board. Meticulous in dating his manuscripts, Massenet appears to have begun writing Werther in the summer of 1885, completing the vocal score on 14 March 1887. Orchestration began the following day and continued up until 2 July.

Oddly, given its subsequent popularity at the theatre, Werther was initially turned down by Léon Carvalho, director of the Opéra-Comique, for being ‘too dismal’. But in any case, the theatre itself burned down in May 1887, making an immediate Parisian production out of the question. Thereupon Massenet seems to have sat on the score for five years, awaiting a suitable opportunity to have it presented in more auspicious circumstances – which finally came about when the director of the Vienna Court Opera requested from him a new work following the huge local success of Manon. Thus it was that Werther was premiered in Vienna in German translation on 16 February 1892, with the French premiere given by the company of the Opéra-Comique at the Théâtre Lyrique, Paris, on 16 January 1893.

We named Massenet one of the greatest French composers of all time

What is the storyline behind Werther?

Set in the small German town of Wetzlar – the historical location for Goethe’s partly autobiographical story – around 1780, the opera has at its dramatic centre the love between the hyper-sensitive young poet Werther and Charlotte, a young woman whose father is a pillar of local society. Following a promise made to her dying mother, Charlotte unenthusiastically marries the respectable but dull Albert – whom she does not love.

Refusing to accept that he has lost her, Werther becomes increasingly unstable and eventually commits suicide, dying in her arms in the opera’s final scene. Ironically, this bleak tale is framed by references to the celebration of Christmas: in the opening scene, set in July, Charlotte’s father the Bailli (or bailiff) is already rehearsing his younger children in a carol they will sing on Christmas Eve. Sent away by Charlotte because he refuses to accept the fact of her marriage, Werther is told that he may come back at, yes, Christmas time. Which, of course, he does. Following an increasingly desperate confrontation between the two, however, Werther borrows Albert’s pistols, leaves for his lodgings and shoots himself. Concerned for his welfare, Charlotte hurries after him only to find him dying: he succumbs just as the children’s voices are heard offstage, once more singing their carol.

The two central characters and their repressed relationship are at the heart of the piece. Werther is an individual who represents the burgeoning Romanticism espoused by Goethe himself, which subsequently resonated tumultuously all over Europe. There is a gentler side to Werther’s nature, though, as presented in the score, especially in his opening pantheistic hymn, or in the rapt, luminous and understated ‘Clair de lune’ love scene at the close of the first act. Elsewhere, the title character’s extreme volatility drew from Massenet something very dark and even frenetic. Around him the harmonies shift and grind, the orchestra bursts forth with unruly emotions, and his vocal line swoops and sweeps over a wide range. This is in stark contrast to the musical characterisation of Albert, whose harmonies are solid but placid, and whose vocal line moves in small, deliberate steps. Stuck in between the two, Charlotte begins as a vision of maternal security, her own music more delicately scored and more subtly harmonised than Albert’s – but equally moving within circumscribed limits. Yet Werther sets something off in her. It is almost as if she is infected by his own lack of restraint, so that in their great third-act confrontation she is dragged, melodically and harmonically, over into his world of heightened subjective passion.

We named Werther one of the best Christmas operas of all time

The best recordings of Werther

Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Roberto Alagna (Werther), Angela Gheorghiu (Charlotte) et al; London Symphony Orchestra/Antonio Pappano

Warner Classics 735 9542

Pappano is an expert operatic conductor with a wide range of musical sympathies. In his first recording of Werther – made initially for EMI in 1998 but now available on Warner Classics – his infallible combination of command and flexibility provides the foundation of a potent interpretation, with some extraordinary yet entirely appropriate surges of passion. Pappano’s ‘pit’ orchestra here is the LSO, whose colouristic palette is as wide as one could wish, with the result that Massenet’s resourceful orchestral writing comes over as well as on any set. No other operatic composer can beat his skill in accurately depicting the exact ambience of individual scenes via tonal painting: each is allotted its own distinctive set of colours and all are vividly represented here.

The famous ‘Clair de lune’, for instance, when Werther and Charlotte return home from a ball having fallen in love with one another, simply gleams with moonlit sensuousness. For their part, the engineers capture the detail of the LSO’s distinguished playing in comprehensively excellent sound. Tenor Alagna’s French birth and upbringing enable him to deliver an idiomatic reading of the title-role – ardent yet sensitive and above all marked by a sense of passion that is initially restrained but which eventually becomes ungovernable. He is well matched by Angela Gheorghiu, who retains an essential inward sadness in the ‘Clair de lune’ while elsewhere allowing Charlotte’s true feelings to rise closer to the surface earlier than many of the role’s exponents do. In a part taken by both mezzos and sopranos, her lower range is convincingly exploited, while throughout her profoundly musical and considered account gazes steadily into the character’s interior depths. While offering precision, Patricia Petibon as Sophie sounds just as light and fluttery as the teenage child she is meant to portray (Massenet’s cast list suggests that Sophie is 15, Charlotte 20 and Werther 23). Thomas Hampson draws a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of over-earnest Albert, Jean-Philippe Courtis’s Le Bailli keeps his feet on the ground, and the smaller roles are all expertly taken by French singers. Pappano, incidentally, made a second recording in 2011, live from Covent Garden, with Rolando Villazón in the title role and Sophie Koch as Charlotte (on DG). It’s also commendable, though the Mexican tenor can't quite match Alagna in the title-role.

Michel Plasson (conductor)

Warner Classics 3091132

Michel Plasson’s extensive career has included a long-term commitment to the 19th-century French repertoire and to Massenet in particular, and this 1979 recording benefits significantly from his stylistic assurance. Few exponents of the title-role can match the refinement and delicacy of Alfredo Kraus’s realisation – a true masterclass in operatic characterisation. Full of feeling, Tatiana Troyanos’s Charlotte is never overdone, while two French singers – Christine Barbaux and Matteo Manuguerra – add distinction as Sophie and Albert respectively.

Michel Plasson (conductor)

Decca 074 3406 (DVD); 074 3826 (Blu-ray)

Here’s Plasson again, this time in a starkly designed production by film director Benoît Jacquot, originally presented at the Royal Opera House and here restaged at the Opéra Bastille in 2010. Entirely engaged both vocally and physically, Jonas Kaufmann conjures up a moody romantic presence as the suicidal poet, while Sophie Koch’s Charlotte matches him note for note and move for move: their Act III confrontation is thrilling. Anne-Catherine Gillet’s sparky Sophie and Ludovic Tézier’s stern Albert flesh out the central quartet convincingly.

Elie Cohen (conductor)

Naxos 8110061-62

Made as early as 1931, Werther’s first recording is still a classic. Its cast is led by Georges Thill, whose heroic approach to the title-role does not preclude considerable nuance, singing opposite Ninon Vallin, whose vital tone encompasses bags of personality as a soprano Charlotte (apparently Massenet’s original intention). With the remainder of the cast, conductor and both choral and orchestral forces all linked to the Opéra-Comique (where the opera had been a repertoire mainstay since 1893) style is authoritative, even if the sound is of its period.

Read our reviews of the latest Massenet reviews

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