The libretto for Massenet's Werther, by Édouard Blau, Paul Milliet, and Georges Hartmann, is based on Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (in the original German, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, published in 1774). The young Goethe was himself madly in love with a woman named Charlotte Buff, who was to be married to his friend, Georg Kestner. This was when Goethe lived for a while in the town of Wetzlar, where the novel and opera take place. In his despair, the author contemplated suicide but it was another man who also fell in love with a woman after she was married who actually committed suicide, as Werther does in the novel. The novel was so popular that it supposedly inspired a series of suicides by poetic young men who saw their own frustrations in love reflected in the story. Young men even began to wear the blue jacket and yellow vest that Werther wears in Goethe's novel. Charlotte Buff's house, where Goethe spent so much time with her, is a sort of Goethe museum today in Wetzlar.
The production at the Met, which could be heard live on a radio broadcast yesterday (see yesterday's post), featured some very talented child singers as Charlotte's younger brothers and sisters. They were heard in the first scene, rehearsing their Christmas carol (in July), an innocent but sinister harbinger of what will happen on the following Christmas eve (see the picture here). (You can listen to several excerpts from the 1999 EMI recording of the opera with Roberto Alagna, Angela Gheorghiu, Thomas Hampson, Patricia Petibon, and the London Symphony Orchestra if you have Real Player: look at the bottom of this page.) Alagna's first appearance, in the aria "Je ne sais si je veille ou si je rêve encore!" was strong and received enthusiastic applause. The crucial moment in the first act, the love scene between Charlotte and Werther, was a delight. In the 19th century, this became one of the quintessential Romantic scenes, the first blossom of pure love, the strongest force possible, which is ultimately doomed. The music from this scene, which is heard at crucial points in the rest of the opera, is touchingly poignant, evoking the hope of Charlotte's love that is born in Werther and that drives him to his suicide.
At the first intermission, we were treated to a recorded performance by Susan Graham of four lesser-known songs (she learned them especially for the broadcast): Massenet's Le Nid, from 1898; Crépuscule, with piano accompaniment of simple chords, disarmingly simple; Ouvre tes yeux bleus, on a poem by Paul Robiquet; and Madrigal, from 1869; and Reynaldo Hahn's Infidélité. Steven Blier, the host of this segment, made a good point about songs by Massenet and others of this period in France, that they are more effective vehicles for singers, especially sopranos, than the operatic roles in some ways. Ms. Graham's performance was perhaps the most beautiful of the afternoon. Blier made a good comparison of this sort of music to the world of art:
Massenet is definitely the Renoir of songwriters. They were both unashamed of their love for sheer prettiness. At the Barnes Museum in Philadelphia which houses several rooms filled with Renoir’s canvases, I was reminded of his credo: "I never think I have finished a nude until I think I could pinch it." But after I’d seen a few walls filled with Renoir’s flowers, children, and corpulent nude women, I started to overdose. I felt as I were being force-fed Godiva chocolates.In the second act, an offstage organ creates the illusion of a liturgical celebration inside the "temple" (a French word that usually means a Protestant church), a device that is also very effective in the Saint-Sulpice scene (from Act III) in his Manon. Listening to Alagna's superb performance in his big aria in this act ("Un autre est son époux!") made me think that someone has to be able to make money off this voice, if EMI cannot (see yesterday's post). In the role of Charlotte's sister Sophie, Lyuba Petrova demonstrated great flexibility and beautiful high notes in the technically demanding "Tout le monde est joyeux! le bonheur est dans l'air!"
The third and fourth acts were performed without intermission, which makes sense because the action is more or less continuous. The fateful Christmas Eve arrives for Charlotte, who with Werther dominates the end of the opera. Mezzo soprano Vesselina Kasarova (Charlotte) had some of her strongest moments here, especially in her mournful aria with bassoon ("Va! laisse couler mes larmes") and in the charged duet with Werther that concludes the act. Werther's main aria, I think ("Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps"), was stellar and received lots of applause and bravos. At the end of the act, Albert discovers that his wife was with Werther and orders her to send Werther his pistols, as he requests in a letter. This reflects the story of Goethe's friend, who committed suicide with pistols belonging to the husband of the woman he loved.
In the fourth act, as Werther lies dying, Charlotte tells him that she loves him. Offstage, the laughter and singing of the children in the Christmas service seem to make light of Werther's death, as the beautiful "Noel" the children were rehearsing at the opening of the opera is heard again. If you missed this broadcast, tune in next Saturday at 1:30 pm for a live broadcast of Franz Lehár's operetta The Merry Widow, which will be sung in the English translation of Martin Crimp, with the delectable Susan Graham in the title role. If you don't know where to tune the radio in your area, find out.