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8.110061-62 - MASSENET: Werther (Thill, Vallin) (1931)
Jules Massenet (1842 - 1912)
At the age of nine the French composer Jules Massenet was admitted to the Paris Conservatory and by the time he was seventeen he had won first prizes for both piano playing and fugue He won the Grand Prix du Rome in 1863 and was appointed Professor of Composition at the Paris Conservatoire in 1878, where he continued to teach until his death. Massenet was one of many late nineteenth century composers responding to the revolution that Richard Wagner had created with his "music dramas" and was referred to at one point as "Mademoiselle Wagner." But he was no mere copy-cat; in fact, along with Charles Gounod (the composer of Faust), he determined the outline of what truly is the French tradition in opera His melodies are graceful and heart-felt, his music has an innate charm, he is an elegant orchestrator, and his operas –particularly his best operas, Manon and Werther - are imbued with a natural sense of the theatrical. He has been accused of being shallow and merely creating beautiful music; the composer Vincent d'Indy referred to his "discreet and semi-religious eroticism" which is both appealing and easy to dismiss And indeed, Massenet responded to the accusation by saying "I don't believe in all that creeping Jesus stuff, but the public likes it and we must always agree with the public." Massenet's popularity began to wane under Debussy's growing influence and he was seen as old-fashioned by the time he died. But in addition to the very popular Manon and Werther, his operas Le Cid, Esclarmonde, Don Quichotte and Herodiade still occasionally show up in major opera houses around the world and the "Meditation" from his opera Thais for violin is a great concert favourite.
Werther, which was first staged in 1892 in Vienna, was not an immediate success, but once it caught on, there was no stopping it. Its first production in Paris was the following year, and it was heard in Milan, New Orleans, Louisiana and New York in 1894. It has been performed over 1300 times in Paris alone.
Massenet's passion for melody infused with tenderness and sensuality found the perfect outlet in Goethe's romantic novel, formed into a libretto by Edouard Blau, Paul Milliet and George Hartman. The lovelorn, pessimistic, melodramatic poet Werther and his adored and unavailable-though-truly-concerned Charlotte fit right into Massenet's world-view and arch-romanticism. (The novelist Thackeray nastily wrote the following about Charlotte after reading Goethe's novel' Charlotte, having seen his body/Borne before her on a shutter,/Like a well-conducted person,/Went on cutting bread and butter) Massenet perfectly captures these characters' emotions in his music without ever becoming more florid than his hero. Words are invariably wed to music and the transitions from informal recitative to arioso and, at times, compete aria are absolutely natural. The orchestration is generally quite dark as befits its gloom-and-doom-laden subject matter, with low brass and winds pervasive.
In all, Massenet, as Rodney Milnes eloquently writes in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, "wrote nothing greater or more heartfelt than Werther"
The recording and cast
Now almost seventy years old (it was recorded in March of 1931), this Werther, despite nearly a dozen other recorded versions available, remains the finest. The orchestra, chorus, soloists and conductor are steeped in the French style and there is a smoothness of orchestral line which is unique Conductor Elie Cohen finds the ideal harmony of refinement and fire and the Opera-Comique Orchestra, with its wooden flutes, gut strings and French bassoons rejoice in their own lyrical, resonant ensemble. There seems not to be a dishonest or unnatural bit of rubato or other effect throughout - the drama is always served without exaggeration and Massenet's lyricism, at times airy, at times tortured, is allowed to speak for itself. Ardour and excitement grow organically from the music, there are no sharp edges, just perfectly-drawn feelings. This is Massenet unadulterated, unsweetened and potent.
The singers are ideal. Those curious to hear the French language sung perfectly need go no further - these are the models against whom all others since have been measured. Tenor Georges Thill as Werther manages to combine a heroic timbre with a pleading demeanour - no small feat indeed. The voice is luxurious, big and free, absolutely even from top to bottom. He can ride over the orchestra with ease and soft phrases are perfectly poised and controlled. He chooses to underplay Werther's death scene, and what a relief - and how effective - it is to hear this gorgeous music without sobbing and moaning. He refuses to magnify Werther's already dreadful dilemma and by so doing, makes us empathize with the character. The one imperfect note in the whole recording is his big A sharp near the close of "Pourquoi me reveiller?" and leaving it as it was sung (it easily could have been re- recorded), rather than detracting from the performance, lends Thill's performance a genuine feel of the stage This is a monumental, noble portrayal from one of the twentieth century's great tenors.
And opposite Thill, as Charlotte, soprano Ninon Vallin is no less fine. The role is more often taken by a mezzo-soprano, but Vallin, by understating most of the recitatives and keeping her tone warm and poised, never sounds too light or bright. The voice itself is beautiful and full; her singing is as natural as speech. Her singular style, hesitant yet pulsing and pressing with feeling, makes her Charlotte a classic: she is a very proper woman, who, though filled with emotions for Werther, not only sacrifices love for comfort and duty, but hands her husband, Albert, the pistols with which poor Werther is going to commit suicide, Vallin brilliantly remains involved and aloof at once: her big numbers in the third act begin with great reserve but soon burst wide open. It is a glorious, probing performance, stunningly sung.
The far lesser roles of Sophie and Albert are well taken. The soprano Germaine Feraldy is rather mature for Sophie, but her liveliness and glistening tone provide the perfect counterpoint to Charlotte. The equally little-known Marcel Roque sings Albert with just the right combination of warmth and stiffness - perfect for the character - and also manages to get a sting into his tone when, at the close of the third act, he more or less orders Charlotte to send Werther the objects of the latter's own demise. As a whole, then, there is not an unconvincing, uncommitted performance here
Act I: The Bailiff's House
 The opera opens with an initially ominous Prelude. The first act is set in the garden of the Bailiff, Charlotte's widowed father He is sitting on the garden terrace, with his six younger children round him, as he teaches them to sing [Assez! Assez! (Enough! Enough!)].  They sing their Christmas carol [Noel! Jesus vient de naitre (Noel! Jesus is born)], overheard by the Bailiff's friends Johann and Schmidt.  They congratulate the children on their performance [Bravo pour les enfants! (Well done, children!)] but gently mock the Bailiff for practising carols in July. They are joined by Sophie, the Bailiff's 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, Charlotte's fiancé, who is away. The Bailiff promises to meet his friends at the inn that evening, as they take their leave. Sophie leaves and the Bailiff goes into the house, with some of the younger children settled round him.
 Werther, accompanied by a young peasant, comes into the courtyard and looks at the house [Alors c'est bien ici, la maison du bailli. Merci. Je ne sais si je veille ou si je reve encore (So this is the Bailiff's 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 children's carol from inside the house. Charlotte comes down, dressed for the ball, and, as the Bailiff sees Werther, he greets him and introduces Charlotte, the eldest daughter, who has managed the family since her mother's death.  While Charlotte says goodbye to the children, leaving Sophie to look after them, Werther admires this picture of love and innocence [O spectacle ideal d'amour et d'innocence (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 Bailiff 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 Charlotte's love for him [Elle m'aime... elle pense a 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 taut nous separer. 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.  Nevertheless, he assures her that he knows her well [Mon ame a reconnu votre time (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! C'est que l'image de ma mere est presente (You have spoken truly! The image of my mother is always here)].  Werther is further enchanted by Charlotte's simple goodness [Revel Extase! Bonheur! (Dream! Ecstasy! Joy!)], but they are interrupted by the Bailiff, 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 Prelude 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! C'est 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 epoux! (Another is her husband!). Johann and Schmidt return, comforting their friend Bruhlmann, who has lost his Kathchen 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 qu'elle etait 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 [Frere, 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 l'etre 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 minister's, but he can only speak of his love for her [Ah! qu'il est loin ce jour plein d'intime 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 I'enfant revient d'un voyage avant I'heure (When a child returns early from a journey)], finding here consolation for suicide. Sophie returns, calling cheerfully on Werther to join the bridal procession, but he abruptly leaves, telling her he will never come back. In a moment Sophie's 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 Prelude marks the further passing of time. Now it is five o'clock 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 m'aurait dit la place que dans mon coeur il occupe aujourd' hui! (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 Albert's absence [Bonjour, grande soeur! 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 beni, joyeux, leger, sonore! (Ah! Laughter is blessed, joyful, light, full- sounding!)]. She goes on to regret Werther's absence, which seems to have changed everything.  Now Charlotte can no longer hold back her tears and Sophie begs her to come home again. Charlotte almost agrees, but worries about Werther's 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 m'abandonne! (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 [Qui, c'est moi! le 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 ame est la . ..'Pourquoi me reveiller, o 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 Werther's 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 dicte mon arret! (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 Albert's 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 Werther's note and throws it down, leaving the room. Charlotte, praying that she is not too late, rushes out
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 Werther's study, with its table covered by books and papers. The town square is seen through the large open window, with the Bailiffs 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 Charlotte's 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 tames! (And I, Werther, and I love you!)], seeking a last kiss to forget all sorrows. The children's 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 [La-bas, au fond du cimetiere (There, at the far end of the cemetery)], if he is allowed 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 Christ’s birth [Jesus vient de naitre(Jesus is born)] and laughing in their delight.
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