Werther is loosely based on the German epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
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.
Opera in 4 acts
Sung in French
About 2 hours 10 min + intervals
Within the period July to December, in an undefined year in the 1780s.
In July, the widowed Bailiff (a Magistrate, rather than one who comes to seize property), is teaching his six youngest children a Christmas carol ("Noël! Jésus vient de naître"). His drinking companions, Johann and Schmidt, arrive as Charlotte, the eldest daughter, dresses for a ball. Since her fiancé Albert is away, she is to be escorted by Werther, whom the Bailiff and his companions find gloomy. Werther arrives ("O Nature, pleine de grâce"), and watches as Charlotte prepares her young siblings' supper, just as her mother had before she died. He greets her and they leave for the ball. Albert returns unexpectedly after a six-month trip. He is unsure of Charlotte's intentions and disappointed not to find her at home, but is reassured and consoled by Charlotte's younger sister Sophie. He leaves after promising to return in the morning. After an orchestral interlude, Werther and Charlotte return very late; he is already enamoured of her. His declaration of love is interrupted by the announcement of Albert's return. Charlotte recalls how she promised her dying mother she would marry Albert. Werther is in despair.
It is three months later, and Charlotte and Albert are now married. They walk happily to church to celebrate the minister's 50th wedding anniversary, followed by the disconsolate Werther ("Un autre est son époux!"). First Albert and then Sophie ("Du gai soleil, plein de flamme") try to cheer him up. When Charlotte exits the church, he speaks to her of their first meeting. Charlotte begs Werther to leave her, though she indicates that she would be willing to receive him again on Christmas Day. Werther contemplates suicide ("Lorsque l'enfant revient d'un voyage"). He encounters Sophie but the tearful girl does not understand his distressing behavior. Albert now realizes that Werther loves Charlotte.
Charlotte is at home alone on Christmas Eve. She spends time rereading the letters that she has received from Werther ("Werther! Qui m'aurait dit ... Ces lettres!"), wondering how the young poet is and how she had the strength to send him away. Sophie comes in and tries to cheer up her older sister ("Ah! le rire est béni"), though Charlotte is not to be consoled ("Va! laisse couler mes larmes"). Suddenly Werther appears, and while he reads to her some poetry of Ossian ("Pourquoi me réveiller?"), he realizes that she does indeed return his love. They embrace for a moment, but she quickly bids him farewell. He leaves with thoughts of suicide. Albert returns home to find his wife distraught. Werther sends a messenger to Albert, requesting to borrow his pistols, explaining he is going on an extended trip. After the servant has taken them, Charlotte has a terrible premonition and hurries to find Werther. An orchestral intermezzo ("La nuit de Noël") leads without a break into the final Act.
"The death of Werther": At Werther's apartment, Charlotte has arrived too late to stop him from shooting himself; he is dying. She consoles him by declaring her love. He asks for forgiveness. After he dies, Charlotte faints. Outside children are heard singing the Christmas carol.
Charlotte – Mezzo-soprano (lyric)
Daughter of the Magistrate
Sophie – Soprano (lyric)
Charlotte's younger sister
Werther – Tenor (lyric)
A young poet
Albert – Baritone (lyric)
Betrothed to Charlotte
Le Bailli – Bass (lyric)
The Magistrate, father of Charlotte and Sophie
Schmidt – Tenor
A friend of the Bailli
Johann – Baritone
A friend of the Bailli
Brühlmann – Tenor
A young man
Kätchen - Mezzo-soprano
Brühlmann's fiancée of seven years
Children of the Bailli
Fritz, Max, Hans, Karl, Gretel, Clara
Place of birth: Saint-Étienne, Loire, France
Place of death: Paris, France
Jules Émile Frédéric Massenet was a French composer of the Romantic era best known for his operas, of which he wrote more than thirty. The two most frequently staged are Manon (1884) and Werther (1892). He also composed oratorios, ballets, orchestral works, incidental music, piano pieces, songs and other music.
Like many prominent French composers of the period, Massenet became a professor at the Conservatoire. He taught composition there from 1878 until 1896, when he resigned after the death of the director, Ambroise Thomas. Among his students were Gustave Charpentier, Ernest Chausson, Reynaldo Hahn and Gabriel Pierné.
By the time of his death, Massenet was regarded by many critics as old-fashioned and unadventurous although his two best-known operas remained popular in France and abroad. After a few decades of neglect, his works began to be favourably reassessed during the mid-20th century, and many of them have since been staged and recorded. Although critics do not rank him among the handful of outstanding operatic geniuses such as Mozart, Verdi and Wagner, his operas are now widely accepted as well-crafted and intelligent products of the Belle Époque.
“I have departed from this planet and I have left behind my poor earthly ones with their occupations which are as many as they are useless; at last I am living in the scintillating splendor of the stars, each of which used to seem to me as large as millions of suns.”
Jules Massenet was the youngest of 12 siblings. The French composer Ambroise Thomas was his composition teacher. They remained close until Thomas' death.
Most prominent operas
The libretto was written by Édouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hartmann (pseudonym Henri Grémont), and is loosely based on the German epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
2d1, 2d1, 2, alto saxophone, 2 - 4, 2, 3, 1
timp, perc, harp, strings
Werther first premiered in a German version in 1892 at the Imperial Theatre Hofoper in Vienna. Later that year, the opera had its French-language premiere in Geneva. The following year the opera was given by the Opéra-Comique at the Théâtre Lyrique on the Place du Châtelet in Paris.
Today it is one of the top 50 most performed operas worldwide.
Aria - O nature, pleine de grâce (Werther)
Aria - Un autre est son époux! (Werther)
Aria – Frère voyez... Du gai soleil pleine de flamme (Sophie)
Aria – Lorsque l'enfant revient d'un voyage (Werther)
Aria – Werther! Qui m'aurait dit... Ces lettres! "Letter scene" (Charlotte)
Aria – Va! laisse couler mes larmes (Charlotte)
Aria – Pourquoi me réveiller (Werther)