In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

BLO's Werther Breaks New Musical Ground!

Mar 8, 2016 11:18:00 AM
By David Angus

Photo by Eric Antoniou

David Angus, conductor of Werther and Music Director of BLO, steps in this week to announce exciting news about the upcoming BLO production!

Dear readers,

You may not know that the job of the conductor begins months before rehearsals do—the conductor must sort through any inconsistencies in printed scores, or revisions that the composer made, and decide exactly which version will be performed so that scores can be compiled and all of the singers and orchestra musicians know precisely what to prepare.

Whilst preparing the Werther score several months ago, I discovered that the original handwritten manuscript orchestral score, from Massenet's own pen, was recently made available (within the last few years) online. I referred to it many times, and we have continued to do so throughout the rehearsals. I suddenly realised that, at the emotional and musical climax of the whole work, when the lovers finally kiss (shortly before Werther dies), there were mysterious extra vocal lines for the two lovers written in the manuscript. Instead of a kiss that lasted for over a minute, they were actually joining in with the ecstatic orchestra, firstly in a glorious, full unison at the tops of their voices, and then breaking apart and weaving around each other’s music in sensuous counterpoint. These vocal lines have never been included in printed, published versions of the score and I had not encountered them before—what would they sound like in performance?

The first of several pages in the manuscript score with the added vocal lines for Charlotte and Werther (emphasis added).

When we reached that music in the rehearsal process, I mentioned the extra vocal lines and suggested that we try them out.  Everyone got very excited by the power and beauty of the new music. The added section is not long, but it is exceptional, both because it comes at the absolute climax of the opera and because it is almost the only time that people actually sing together in this opera, rather than alternating in dialogue. This music symbolises the coming together of the lovers, and the weaving together of the two lines mirrors their physical interaction! The orchestral music at this point was already wonderful, but adding the two voices on top takes it to another whole level.

Adding to the excitement is the fact that we think that these added vocal lines might never have been performed, either at the time of the first performances, or since. To try to confirm this, we consulted with Professor Hugh MacDonald (a world authority on, and biographer of, Massenet) and Dr. Lesley Wright, the editor of the soon-to-be-published Bärenreiter critical edition of Werther. These two authorities know nothing of any performances that include the added vocal lines. In fact, in Massenet's time, the vocal score was completed before the full orchestral manuscript had even been started, meaning that the singers probably learned the music without these lines. All the published versions of the libretto and any translations that we can find fail to include the extra text for this new music. There is simply no trace of it, apart from the one original manuscript, written in Massenet’s own hand, and apparently added at the exact same time that he was working out all the orchestration. Who knows what inspiration took him and made him add these words and this music for the singers, or why it never made it into any of the later printed scores—vocal or orchestral. Our accomplished rehearsal coach/accompanist, Brett Hodgdon, has continued this research while rehearsing full-time, and has worked out the chronology of the scores and the compositional process, but he too can find no trace of these bars. Even if Massenet himself eventually decided not to include these lines, they still represent his first inspiration when preparing this part of the score, and I believe it was an error of judgement to remove them!

We are very excited to be able to include this music in the upcoming BLO production because it is truly wonderful and very powerful, and because, if our research thus far proves correct and these vocal lines have never before been performed, this is a significant world first. BLO is proud to continue pushing the boundaries of opera and blazing new ground, and we can't wait to share this stunning music—and all of Werther—with you.

Wait till you hear it, and you will understand!


David Angus
BLO Music Director
Conductor, Werther

Topics: 2015/16 Season, david angus, Innovation, Massenet, Werther

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