Massenet’s Werther

Thackeray thought Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther was so boring and idiotic that he wrote a satirical poem about it (you can find it at the bottom of the page).  Massenet’s reaction, alas, was to write a three hour opera based on it.  Add to the implausible and dull plot (altered but slightly from Goethe’s original) Massenet’s overblown romantic music and penchant for any sentimentality he can find (at the end, a children’s chorus sings a Christmas song while Werther is bleeding to death in Charlotte’s arms) and it’s well nigh unbearable.

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The production recorded at the Opéra Bastille in Paris in 2010 is directed by Benoît Jacquot and it is also dull and static.  The sets and costumes are period and quite literal.  There’s a lot of empty space on stage and nothing much happens in it.  This seems to drive the video director, André Diot to distraction and he tries, increasingly desperately, to make the film interesting.  By the Act 3/4 entracte we are getting shots of the wings, from directly overhead, across the orchestra from all kinds of angles and even footage of the stage hands making a scene change behind the curtain.  I understand his desperation but it really doesn’t improve matters.

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Now the good news.  If you really want a recording of Werther I don’t think you are likely to find one better sung and acted, at least as far as the principals are concerned.  Jonas Kaufmann as Werther, Sophie Koch as Charlotte and Ludovic Tézier as Albert are all at the top of their games which means absolutely A list singing and acting.  I was also impressed by Anne-Catherine Gillet who injects a bit of life as the irrepressible younger sister Sophie.  The rest of the cast are OK though there are some fairly feeble attempts at slapstick.  Michel Plasson conducts.  We see quite a lot of him in the video and I’m really not sure what he’s doing but the music, for better or worse, sounds like Massenet.

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Technically the disks are OK.  The picture is definitely challenged by some of the dark scenes on DVD so I’d recommend the Blu-ray if you have a choice.  The DTS 5.1 sound is fine by DVD standards and the stereo track is OK too.  There are no extras on the disks but there is quite a lot of explanatory material in the booklet as well as a synopsis and track listing.  Subtitle options are English, French, German and Spanish.

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In the last scene Werther asks to be buried in a lonely valley.  They should bury this recording with him.

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Sorrows of Werther
by William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–63)

WERTHER had a love for Charlotte
Such as words could never utter;
Would you know how first he met her?
She was cutting bread and butter.

Charlotte was a married lady,
And a moral man was Werther,
And for all the wealth of Indies
Would do nothing for to hurt her.

So he sigh’d and pin’d and ogled,
And his passion boil’d and bubbled,
Till he blew his silly brains out,
And no more was by it troubled.

Charlotte, having seen his body
Borne before her on a shutter,
Like a well-conducted person,
Went on cutting bread and butter.

5 thoughts on “Massenet’s Werther

  1. Thackeray thought Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther was so boring and idiotic that he wrote a satirical poem about it (you can find it at the bottom of the page). Massenet’s reaction, alas, was to write a three hour opera based on it. Add to the implausible and dull plot (altered but slightly from Goethe’s original) Massenet’s overblown romantic music and penchant for any sentimentality he can find (at the end, a children’s chorus sings a Christmas song while Werther is bleeding to death in Charlotte’s arms) and it’s well nigh unbearable.

    priceless! And thank you for posting the poem 😀

  2. I saw the broadcast of the same staging from London, with a largely Italian cast, who insisted on singing Massenet as though he were Puccini. And the staging was soporific. WERTHER, if it’s to come off at all, has to be a domestic drama – lots of naturalistic detail, not big, semi-abstract spaces.

    But then WERTHER is a hard opera to pull off, and hard to like. A few beautiful arias – “Pourquoi me réveiller” – but an unsympathetic, emo protagonist, and a score that, too often, sounds overblown. The only recording of WERTHER I’ve enjoyed is the classic Georges Thill.

    It’s a pity WERTHER is Massenet’s best known opera; it’s certainly not his best! And a lot of people hear it, and judge Massenet by it. CENDRILLON, ROMA, ARIANE, GRISÉLIDIS, THÉRÈSE, DON QUICHOTTE, AMADIS, the JONGLEUR, and ESCLARMONDE, to name a few, are all more interesting. (Check out, if you like, my article about Massenet for MusicWeb International: http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2016/Aug/Massenet_article.pdf.)

    Have you read Goethe’s book? At least it inspired this: https://julianpeterscomics.com/2012/09/19/the-sorrows-of-young-werthers-originals/

    • The spoof is wonderful. I like those candies! I’m not a huge Massenet fan but I have enjoyed Cendrillon and Manon. Don Quichotte left me cold when I saw it at COC but that may have had quite a lot to do with the production. I’ll check out the article.

  3. Loved this review and the poem. Have never been a fan of Massenet (I do, however, like the first 3 acts of Manon). Nothing can redeem this opera. I’ve seen it several times with among others, Alfedo Kraus and Von Stade and Koch and Kaufmann–all I can think of while watching it is why doesn’t this totally self-absorbed schmuck kill himself in the first act put everyone–including the audience out its misery.

    • I did find myself wondering whether he was the model for Fotherington-Tomas in Geoffrey Willans’ and Ronald Searle’s Molesworth books. “Hullo clouds, hullo sky”. Molesworth say he is utterly wet and a weed.

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