Monday, January 25, 2016

Get to Know Massenet’s Werther

Background information on the opera by John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor

Poster for the first French production of Werther.
By Grasset.
 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production, finally given at the Opéra-Comique in Paris a year later with limited success (still “too gloomy”?), was withdrawn from the repertory, although the following year saw performances in New York (Metropolitan Opera), Chicago, New Orleans, Milan, throughout the French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.

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.

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.

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)

Werther Recommendations

Recommendations for further reading, watching, and exploring from John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor

An illustration from The Sorrows of Young Werther.
The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Translated with an introduction and notes by David Constantine
Oxford University Press, 2012 (paperback)
A fine translation that “captures the novel’s lyric clarity” and the passionate introspection and desperate intensity of feeling that made it such a powerful exemplar of Romantic passion in its time, served as a inspiration for Massenet’s outpouring of devastating emotion, and still offers a powerful emotional punch today.

Massenet is know primarily for two of his operas, Manon and Werther. But he was a prolific composer, and between 1867 and his death in 1912, he provided the French operatic world with a series of works of great variety and invention. He was a highly trained professional and very successful musician working always with a greatly developed sense of craft (ironically, perhaps, a fact that has contributed to his somewhat ambiguous position critically, in the end). His work is drawn from a strikingly varied stock of authors (Flaubert, Corneille, Anatole France, Perrault, Cervantes, Rabelais) and his responses to them are often charged with an innate theatricality. Many are today forgotten, but others have been revived and recorded and appreciated anew. Check out a few of my favorites...

Le Roi de Lahore (The first new work to be stage at the Palais Garnier)
Seductive exoticism…at the same time often ravishing and inevitably slightly cheesy.

Le Cid
A true French grand opera spectacle with ballets, processions, lavish settings, and some powerfully dramatic scenes.

Esclarmonde (Massenet's favorite opera, written for the beautiful American soprano Sybil Sanderson)
A “magic” opera (the first operatic production that used projections to suggest rapid scene changes), with rich orchestrations and lush harmonies to accompany a Byzantine plot. (For real…the opera is actually set in Byzantium!)

La Navarraise
Massenet tries “verismo”…the piece is set in the thick of a Spanish civil war in 1874. Like Tosca, somewhat of a “shabby little shocker” and, also like Tosca, bold, obvious, and very effective.

Massenet’s tale of Cinderella. Wit, elegance, charm, a bit of parody, a bit of pseudo-baroque and some exquisite love music.

Don Quichotte
His last operatic success, written for Chaliapin, the famous Russian bass. A very skillful mingling of sentiment and comedy, pastiche and contemporary style. The death scene of the Don is famously moving.

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