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8.558173 - Opera Explained: MASSENET - Werther (Smillie)

Jules Massenet (1842–1912)

The word ‘opera’ is Latin and means ‘the works’; it represents a synthesis of all the other arts: drama, vocal and orchestral music, dance, light and design. Consequently, it delivers an emotional impact which none of the others can match. The only one of the arts whose origins can be precisely dated, it was ‘invented’ in Italy in 1597 as part of the Renaissance – the rebirth of interest in classical values. As an art form it is truly international, crossing all linguistic and cultural barriers, and it is probably the only one whose audience continues to expand, not in spite of, but because of developments in entertainment technology.

From its early origins in Italy opera spread across Europe, establishing individual and distinctive schools in a number of countries. France had an early and longstanding love affair with it – hence the term grand opéra, referring to the massive five-act creations that graced the Paris Opéra in the nineteenth century. Germany had an excellent school from as early as Mozart’s time, and opera perhaps reached its highest achievement with the mighty music dramas of Richard Wagner. Russia, Great Britain and the Americas have also made their contributions.

In the popular imagination, however, opera remains an Italian concept – and no wonder. From its earliest years it was dominated by the Italians: Cavalli and Monteverdi were among the first to establish its forms; there was a golden age, called the bel canto, at the beginning of the nineteenth century when Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini ruled supreme; Giuseppe Verdi was probably the most revered artist in musical history; and, for many, Puccini represents in every sense the last word in this beloved genre.

Although the twentieth century has not been as lavishly endowed with opera composers, it can still boast a few, including Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky and Benjamin Britten – and, maybe most significantly in the long run, those errant stepchildren of opera, the Broadway musical and the Lloyd Webber spectacular.


Drame lyrique in four acts by Jules Massenet.
Libretto by Edouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hartmann, based on
Die Leiden des jungen Werthers by Goethe.
First performance: Vienna, Hofoper, 16 February 1892.
First UK performance: London, Covent Garden, 11 June 1894.
First US performance: Chicago, 29 April 1894.

While the image of the artist starving in a garret is a popular one with opera composers, few of them actually suffered the fate themselves. Mozart and Wagner occasionally did, but not Rossini, Massenet or Puccini, all of whom became very rich through the composition of their operas. This was true especially of Massenet, the dominant figure of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French opera. He wrote around twenty-five operas, of which Manon and Werther remain firmly in the repertory, and others like Thaïs and Hérodiade are on the fringes. He was a meticulous, businesslike and punctual composer who turned out one perfumed masterpiece after another to delight the international audiences of the belle époque. He had a sure sense of theatre and craftsmanship which combined with a gift for melody and orchestration to ensure his enduring success.

Werther is regarded by many as Massenet’s masterpiece. The source of the plot is a novel, usually translated as The Sorrows of Young Werther, by the great German Romantic poet Goethe. It involves the unrequited love of an ardent young man for the lovely Charlotte. She is pledged to marry another, and when she does so Werther, after much anguishing, commits suicide. So great was the impact of this novel on early nineteenth-century sensibilities that the work was banned by church authorities – suicide was seen as the ultimate blasphemy, showing a lack of faith in God’s purpose – yet fashionably depressed young men were known to have taken their lives in imitation of its hero.

The attractions of Massenet’s work are not difficult to appreciate. The story is straightforward and deeply touching, and as it combines rustic simplicity – the home life of Charlotte, her sister Sophie and her father – with grand passion and internal anguish, it offers excellent opportunities for rich characterisation and melodic invention. In fusing affecting melody with vivid orchestration, Massenet excels. Jealous musicians are much given to coining insulting nicknames for their more successful colleagues, and Massenet himself was labelled with two. An early incident in this opera introduces us to a musical theme which will characterise the love of Werther for Charlotte and is of such tender beauty that Massenet’s nickname ‘Gounod’s son’ seems understandable. It is later developed into an orchestral passage of such power that the origins of the second and more insulting of the nicknames, ‘Wagner’s daughter’, also become apparent.

Act Three includes one scene and two arias, all of which are among the most treasured of operatic numbers. The Letter Scene is a pillar of the mezzo-soprano repertoire and Charlotte’s aria ‘Va! Laisse couler mes larmes’ is among the most tender and beautiful creations in French opera. But it is the tenor aria ‘Pourquoi me réveiller’, with its wistfulness for the solace of death, that lives longest in the memory.

Of course the very qualities of the perfumed and the sensuous which make Massenet such a favourite with audiences have led occasionally to his being disparaged by sterner souls; but happily the opera Werther has attracted almost universal admiration, possibly because the literary underpinnings are so deep and the musical expression so obviously and sincerely felt as to disarm even the most cynical non-romantic. For the rest of us it is a work of irresistible melodic beauty, and one of the most enjoyable French operas from what is now seen as a golden age of music theatre.

Thomson Smillie

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