Werther

Jules Massenet, Libretto by Édouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hautmann, based on the novella by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Met Opera on Demand
Metropolitan Opera House, New York
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Werther Credit: Metropolitan Opera

Jules Massenet (1842–1912) was the most popular French opera composer of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. He gave the public what they wanted. He gave them melodies. Werther was written in 1887 and first performed in Vienna in 1892. The score delights and charms.

The opera is based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s epistolary novella The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774. A mixture of biography and autobiography, it was a high point in German romanticism and a literary sensation in its day. Instantly translated into English and French, it was the first cult novel.

Werther falls in love with Charlotte, only to find she is already engaged to his best friend, Albert, and about to be married.

Richard Eyre’s tender and sensitive production, conducted by Alain Altinoglu, was seen at The Met in 2014. The story has been updated to the 19th century and Massenet’s own era. The romantic mood is instantly established by Rob Howell’s set.

Werther is the ultimate tortured romantic figure. He ticks all the right boxes. He is a poet. He is young (23 years old). He’s a melancholy dreamer. He’s at odds with the world and oblivious to what going on around him. He is obsessed by his love for an unattainable woman. His passion will never be satisfied. He weeps. He blubs. He suffers terribly. There is no end to his suffering. It would be better for him to die.

Wertherism was fashionable throughout the 19th century. Morbid sentimentality was all the rage. Young men wanted to be like Werther. They wanted to look like him, dress like him and suffer like him. He became a cult figure for a whole generation.

Jonas Kaufmman has the vocal intensity and he can act. He is totally credible as Werther. He embraces the romanticism wholeheartedly and weeps buckets. His voice rings out: “Only love is true… I am the man she should have married!” It’s a great performance with bags of charisma. His wonderful aria in act 3 is received with great enthusiasm.

Werther dominates the first two acts. Three months after her marriage, he is still in a bad way. Charlotte had promised her mother (now dead) that she would marry Albert and felt duty bound to do so and exiles Werther from her home.

Sophie Koch has very little to do except look lovely until act 3 when she initially holds the stage alone and can make her own impact; and especially when she is reading Werther’s frightening letters threatening suicide.

So many young people in the 19th century were identified themselves with Werther and committing suicide, shooting and drowning themselves, that many local authorities banned the novella.

Richard Eyre, Jonas Kaufmann and Sophie Koch are not cowed by the melodrama and take one of the longest dying scenes in their stride.

There are a number of ways of tapping into this opera and others at will. The Met Opera on Demand service offers annual ($149.99) and monthly ($14.99) subscriptions as well as a one-off payment ($4.99) for those who have limited time or only want to watch the occasional opera.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch