Pre-Performance Talk

Redacted text of my pre-performance Talk given at Lyric Opera Ireland’s production of Werther in the National Concert Hall Dublin on Saturday 20 August 2022.

George Fleeton

Jules Massenet was the leading opera composer in France after the death of Bizet in 1875.

Gounod had been his mentor, Debussy and Delibes were among his contemporaries.

He completed over two dozen operas of which the best known is Werther, based on a short work by Goethe.

Massenet was a professional maker of well-mannered music, a master of orchestration, but he was not very successful commercially.

An example of some of his superb writing for the mezzo voice is Charlotte’s Act 3 aria in which, in spite of her recent marriage to Albert, she is now as obsessed with Werther as he is with her.

The aria is Va! Laisse couler mes larmes, a slow, poignant melody, addressed to her younger sister Sophie.               

Cellos and basses dominate this piece. One phrase has haunted me for years: Charlotte sings: ‘Les larmes qu’on ne pleure pas, dans notre âme retombent toutes … the tears we do not shed all fall back into our souls’.

Isn’t that quite profound? That one line encapsulates Charlotte’s predicament; indeed, the entire mood of this opera is in that single phrase.

When Werther, self-proclaimed, melancholic poet, arrives on the scene, in Act 1, he meets Charlotte, minding her widowed father and her seven younger siblings one of whom, her younger sister Sophie, features prominently in the story and its music. Charlotte is engaged to a neighbour called Albert.

By Act 3, Werther, in his extreme response to unrequited love, has made life very difficult for himself and for Charlotte, now married to Albert.

As he tries unsuccessfully to put matters right, he sings a song by a poet called Ossian who foresees his own death.

This aria is Pourquoi me réveiller, a fine, well-constructed and effective piece, with harp arpeggios, a piece which no tenor should neglect to include in his concerts or recordings.

Massenet’s style evokes the last great flowering of French Romantic opera’s traditions and conventions.

In this opera, Werther, the antagonist, has music which is urgent, changeable, and sometimes over-bearing.

Charlotte is the protagonist in the piece and her music is in clear contrast to his, as it underpins the enormous courage she needs to permit herself to experience the kind of passion she eventually admits to herself and to him, but all too late.

And it is this contrast in the writing and orchestration which drives the opera forward to a tragic dénouement worthy of Shakespeare or Verdi.

If you are new to this opera, may I offer a loose analogy with a piece of better-known literature?

In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby/Werther is obsessed with winning over Daisy /Charlotte even though she is married to Tom /Albert, a classic love triangle.

Over and over again Gatsby and Werther in their separate narratives, reach out for what they will never achieve – a love which will be forever beyond their grasp.

The summer and autumn of Acts 1 and 2 in the opera, as in the earlier passages of the novel, will not last, will not deliver, and will end leaving Gatsby/Werther mired in a winter of discontent, as each of them pays too high a price for living too long with a single, impossible dream: such self-delusion, say Goethe and Fitzgerald, is fatally destructive.