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Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

Get to Know Massenet’s Werther

Jan 25, 2016 3:30:00 PM
By John Conklin

Background information on the opera by John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor
Poster for the first French production of Werther.
By Grasset.

PREMIERE
 Somewhat oddly for this very French opera, the premiere (in German) was at the Vienna Hofoper in 1892. The score had been finished in 1887 but was turned down by Léon Carvalho, director the Opéra-Comique, as “too gloomy” for his audience. Massenet put it aside and continued work on Esclarmonde. After the great success of Manon in Vienna, the opera management there asked for a new Massenet work, and so Werther’s premiere was set in Vienna. The first French production, finally given at the Opéra-Comique in Paris a year later with limited success (still “too gloomy”?), was withdrawn from the repertory, although the following year saw performances in New York (Metropolitan Opera), Chicago, New Orleans, Milan, throughout the French provinces, and a single performance at Covent Garden. In 1903, Albert Carré revived the piece at the Opéra-Comique with great success—it has been performed in Paris alone over 1,300 times and, after Manon, is Massenet’s most popular work worldwide.

LIBRETTO
Written by Édouard Blau, Paul Millet, and Georges Hartmann (Massenet’s publisher), based on Goethe’s 1774 novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. Blau also provided libretti for Esclarmonde and Le Cid for Massenet.

SOURCE
Massenet, in his “ever unreliable” memoir, recalls how on a visit to Bayreuth in 1886 for Parsifal, his publisher, Hartmann, gave him a copy of Goethe’s novel when they stopped on their return journey at Wetzlar (the small, German town where the encounter between Goethe and the “real” Charlotte took place). The composer describes starting to read it in a noisy, smoke-filled beer hall and the immediate appeal of its passionate love story. Goethe’s novel is epistolary in form (a series of letters, as is another great 18th-century novel of romantic obsession and destruction, Les Liaisons dangereuses, written eight years after Werther) and tells of a infatuation that ends in suicide. Goethe admitted he “shot his hero to save himself,” a reference to Goethe’s own near-suicidal obsession with a young woman and the therapeutic value of writing out and thus transforming his real agony in a fictional form.

The outfit described by Goethe for Werther became
a fashion sensation among young men during "Werther Fever."

Written when he was twenty-four years old, Goethe initially published the novel anonymously and distanced himself from it in his later years, although it was his first major success and turned him into a celebrated author overnight. Napoleon considered it one of the greatest works of European literature and carried a copy on his campaigns. One anecdote has Napoleon and Goethe himself discussing a passage from the novel (a conversation at which one would certainly like to have been present). The novel started the phenomenon known as “Werther Fever,” which caused young men to dress in the clothing style described by Goethe (yellow pants, buff waistcoat, and blue jacket…the outfit Werther was wearing when he shot himself ), and reputedly led to the first known examples of copycat suicide.

A SLICE OF CULTURAL HISTORY
Around the time of Werther’s premiere (February 1892):
-    Mrs. Warren’s Profession (Shaw) was written (1893)
-    Lady Windermere’s Fan (Wilde) premiered (February 1892)
-    Pelléas and Mélisande (Maeterlink) premiered (1893; the opera by Debussy premiered in 1902)
-    The Master Builder (Ibsen) was published (December 1892)
-    I Pagliacci (Leoncavallo) premiered (May 1892)
-    The Nutcracker (Tchaikovsky) premiered (December 1892)
-    Pearl S. Buck, writer, and Marshal Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslav revolutionary and statesman, were born (1892)
-    Poets Walt Whitman and Lord Alfred Tennyson died (1892)

Topics: 2015/16 Season, French, German, Massenet, New Production, Werther

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