Production Article


Sorrows, Letters, Pistols

George Fleeton

 This article was first published in the programme for Lyric Opera Ireland’s production of Werther in the National Concert Hall Dublin on 20 August 2022.



Werther?  - now which one is that?


Ah, you know, the one where the poet Werther falls in love with virtuous Charlotte, who has married dour Albert; and so he says unless she leaves her husband he will kill himself. Well, she doesn’t, and he does.


Sounds grim.


Perhaps, yet it’s an engaging if slow-burning sentimental tragedy, with luscious romantic music and vocals, indeed the very best of Massenet …


Who’s he?


Oh, he was the leading composer in France after Bizet died (though fans of Delibes and Debussy might not agree).


This one is worth going to see, then?


Most definitely - it hasn’t been staged in Dublin since 1977, so it doesn’t pass this way that often.






The Composer


All opera is complex and enigmatic, be it drame lyrique, dramma per musica or das Musikdrama. 


Mozart, Wagner and Verdi are the acknowledged trinity of music-dramatists whose works - operas - have dominated several centuries of the history of opera-in-performance.


Their individual and collective artistic accomplishments are boundless and indisputable.


French composer Jules Massenet (who died in 1912, aged 70) is not in that panthéon, but his legacy of composition, orchestration and Conservatoire teaching in fin-de-siècle Paris has few equals.


He was not alone in saying that the burden of his music was to convey that which cannot be expressed in words only: that opera is therefore a conversation resting on a cushion of music which, in his case, is light, intelligent, beguiling and well-crafted. 


His taste was for sensual lyricism, atmospheric colour, pictorial detail, and he was particularly sensitive towards the plight of his female characters such as Manon, Charlotte, Thaïs and Cendrillon.


There are few distractions from the main narrative energies of Werther, no Greek chorus commenting on the action, for instance. Instead, there is fluent lyricism, some poetic récitatifs, and several intense arias and duets.


Massenet was a prolific composer and a popular figure in his lifetime, but unprecedented world events from 1914 onwards did eclipse his reputation, and perhaps he and his music were too well-mannered, too belle époque for such changed times, since most of his operas had short lives and then fell out of fashion for several decades.


The last fifty years or so have been kinder to this opera and to its composer, with revivals and revaluations of his work. His best-known operas are essentially a series of romantic, sentimental depictions of life and death: Manon, Werther, Thaïs and Cendrillon each made its mark with loyal audiences in his time and live again to tell their stories today.




The Opera


French opera dates back to the court of Louis XIV at Versailles, and Lully’s Cadmus et Hermione (1673) is widely regarded as its valid historical starting point. Prior to that, italianate music had been the vogue there.


Two hundred and twenty years later Werther was initially unwelcomed in Paris, at l’Opéra Comique, until about a year after it had found its niche, sung in German, in Vienna.


That very year, 1893, also saw Verdi’s final opera Falstaff (La Scala), Puccini’s first notable success Manon Lescaut (Torino) and Humperdinck’s sole claim to fame Hänsel und Gretel (Weimar).


The source of the libretto had been Goethe’s 18th century novella “The Sorrows of Young Werther”, a collection of letters to a friend of his about his love life.


In the opera, the world into which the restive, impassioned poet Werther strays is a petit bourgeois domestic haven in rural Germany.


As tenors do in opera, he at once falls in love with Charlotte, who is caring for her widowed father and her seven siblings.


Her fiancé is Albert, an older, somewhat negative figure in the narrative, whom she had promised her dying mother she would marry; and so her sense of duty and loyalty appear to be inviolable, something which will complicate proceedings for Werther, since he will selfishly continue to pay court to her even if his love is not requited.


Unlike Albert, Werther is not a practical man, he is a dreamer, a sensitive, lonely soul. His music in Act I is initially low key, but of high quality, with elegant vocal lines, framing evocative approval for what he sees and hears in Charlotte’s household (scenes of ordinary family life are rare in opera).


Then his agitation and passion – the articulation of his sorrows - come to the fore in more vigorous music, and a larger more animated gesture begins to take over from those small beginnings.


His melancholy, infatuation and desperation begin to dominate – the very stuff of tenors in opera – and orchestra and voice begin to intimate the outcome (which will involve Albert’s pistols).


The lines of contact between him and Charlotte, during his faux départs (in Acts I and II) are his letters to her: these are foregrounded in Act III, and in turn this theatrical conceit will provide the opera’s (to this point) slow forward thrust with impetus, a fulcrum, a dynamic point around which the narrative twists and turns before moving more sharply forward.


As Charlotte reads and rereads his letters in near hysteria, the music is now at its most convincing. She even has her Tosca moment: O Lord, I’ve been a good girl; why are you doing this to me? (Indeed the heightened emotion of this scene also recalls Tatyana writing to Onegin in an earlier opera by Tchaikovsky).


Their reunion at the end of Act III is strained, as Charlotte’s voice begins to betray her suppressed feelings for him, and their music takes on tragic overtones, driving forward decisively, light years away from their opening scenes together.


Of course this is classic 19th century mélodrame, and the writing for the voices is masterly with orchestra reinforcing some powerful and touching tableaux in this and in the final Act - Massenet at his best: given his sure-handed feel for theatre and what works on the stage one needs to be quite hard-boiled to ignore the appeal which this opera still has.


Werther’s obsession with Charlotte has left her family and friends lacking both comprehension and consideration of his feelings, and so he becomes the outlier, an outcast in his new setting, which is intellectually uncomplicated and where the orderly, traditional fulfilment of duty is paramount - whence Charlotte’s dilemma, in that her enclosed world of oppressive pettiness can never be alleviated by Werther’s largely self-indulgent and excessive emotional overtures.


Granted that this opera has its longueurs, and that it takes a while to get started, it becomes a credible if unusual presentation of neurotic love, the plight of the outsider and the gate-crashing of middle-class family and village life by tragic, unfulfilled love. (Can you imagine the scene afterwards as Albert’s anger confronts Charlotte’s remorse …?). Werther has single-handedly created immense complications in all their lives. 


Yet, in what is structurally a series of inter-related scenes across six months, while there is little or no character development in the case of Werther, Charlotte’s character does undergo (too late, of course) some discernible, melodramatic change and this grows perceptibly in the series of duets between her and Werther, as the opera gathers pace.


Suicide, felo de se, socially taboo then as now, has had a high count in European opera: in Puccini’s output alone, there are four: Tosca, Cio-cio San, Angelica and Liù. In Werther it is not the mezzo but the tenor who will be buried in unconsecrated ground.


And from her initial, mother-substitute naïvety Charlotte will grow to be a vital operatic héroïne who will admit to her suppressed feelings for Werther in the final moments of his life: their duetto d’addio a fleeting happiness granted to both of them in the shadow of death.