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Title Page
Act I
Act II
Act IV
  • Jules Massenet. Drame lyrique in four acts. 1887.
  • Libretto by Edouard Blau, Paul Millier and Georges Hartmann, after Goethe's novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of the Young Werther).
  • First performance at the Hofoper, Vienna, on 16th February 1892.
Werther, a poet, aged 23 tenor
Albert, aged 25 baritone
Le Bailli (The Magistrate), aged 50 bass
Schmidt, his friend tenor
Johann, another friend bass
Charlotte, daughter of the Bailli, aged 20 mezzo-soprano
Sophie, her sister, aged 15 soprano
Brühlmann tenor
Käthchen soprano
The Bailli's six other children children's voices

It is July and the widower Bailli practises a Christmas carol with his children. His friends Schmidt and Johann call, inviting him to the inn to discuss a coming ball, at which Werther will partner Charlotte, in the absence of her fiancé Albert. Werther enters, praising the beauty of nature and watching Charlotte. Albert returns, but thoughts of love now arise in Werther, as he and Charlotte come back from the ball. He declares himself, but Charlotte recalls her promise to marry Albert. By the second act Charlotte and Albert have been married for three months. They join other townspeople in the church, where the pastor's golden wedding is being celebrated. Outside, Werther expresses his pain and bitterness, although he reassures Albert of his present friendship for him and his young wife. Werther has a meeting with Charlotte and resolves to take her advice and go away for a time, although even now he has thoughts of suicide. At Christmas Charlotte reads again the letters she has had from Werther, while Sophie, her younger sister, tries to comfort her. Werther returns and at first behaves calmly, until Charlotte draws his attention to a book of Ossian that he had once started to translate, the words of which fit his mood of growing despair. They embrace and Albert now shows signs of overt jealousy, as he questions Charlotte. Werther seeks to borrow Albert's pistols, as he plans a long journey, and Albert tells his wife to hand them to him. In the fourth act Charlotte finds Werther dying in his study, held in her arms, as children's voices sing outside of Christmas.

Goethe's novel of 1774, reflecting something of his own experiences and those of people he knew, had a strong influence on his contemporaries. In two parts, the first in the form of letters, the work was characteristic of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) period of German culture in the 1770s and had an influence even on dress and behaviour. Young men came to favour the blue coat and yellow breeches of Werther and some brought their lives to a similar conclusion, perhaps after his example. Massenet's operatic treatment of the work came more than a century later in an opera of marked dramatic contrasts. In 1902 Massenet made an arrangement of the part of Werther for a baritone. Manon and Werther remain Massenet's best known operas. Werther's song in praise of nature, O Nature, pleine de grâce (O Nature, full of grace) verbally echoes the Ave Maria in a suggestion of romantic pantheism and there is much that is moving in Charlotte's Air des lettres (Letters Aria) in the third act, in which Werther has his song from Ossian, Pourquoi me réveiller? (Why rouse me?).


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