Werther, Opera by J. Massenet
During the early years of his writing career, Jules Massenet seemed so attuned to the expectations of Parisian audiences of the Belle Époque that he could do no wrong; his operas were almost guaranteed to succeed wherever and whenever they were performed.
Despite this, staging Werther, seen by many today as his masterpiece, initially proved to be problematic for him. When Massenet presented Werther to the Opéra-Comique in 1887 - a company which up until then had championed a number of his works, including La grand-tante and Manon - it was rejected, and it fell to the Vienna Hofoper, today's Vienna State Opera, to pick up the task of mounting the first production of Massenet’s great tragedy.
Premiered on 16 February 1892, Werther is Massenet’s most intimate work. Based on Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, the opera tells the story of a young forlorn poet, tortured by his love for Charlotte; a love that can never be fulfilled since she is engaged to marry another.
One cannot fail to be touched by the sadness of the story which may have offered a mirror to Massenet for what was happening in his personal life - his relationship with an American soprano which may or may not have been platonic - but it is the music in Werther that truly pulls on the heartstrings, from the transcendent notes of the doomed poet’s aria, Pourquoi me réveiller?, through to the disarming way in which Massenet frames the work with the innocent singing of children.
Now this wonderful lyrical drama returns to the opera house where Werther appeared for the very first time: the Wiener Staatsoper.