Massenet’s “WERTHER” at l’Opera National de Paris


L’Opera National de Paris Presents:




Performed in FrenchwertherFrance

Werther is a long requiem, a “lacrimosa dies illa”, a day full of tears and, without doubt, the most personal of all Massenet’s works. Roberto Alagna and Karine Deshayes portray the two unhappy lovers in the now legendary production of Benoît Jacquot, conducted by Michel Plasson.

Michel Plasson Conductor
Benoît Jacquot Stage Director
Charles Edwards Sets
Christian Gasc Costumes
André Diot Lighting (after Charles Edwards)

Roberto Alagna ⁄ NN (12 Févr.) Werther
Jean-François Lapointe Albert
Jean-Philippe Lafont Le Bailli
Luca Lombardo Schmidt
Christian Tréguier Johann
Karine Deshayes Charlotte
Hélène Guilmette Sophie

Paris Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine⁄ Paris Opera children’s Chorus

Original production by Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London


In Massenet’s masterpiece, from the moment the moonlight idyll is revealed and then shattered, the tears never cease to flow. “My entire being weeps”, says Werther. This is a far cry from the furtive tears or the violent sobbing usually associated with opera. These tears fall slowly and inexorably, one by one, in “patient drops”, as Charlotte says: in four acts, they will accomplish their work. Charlotte cannot hold back her tears when she rereads Werther’s letters and her tears are the only part of her, the only sacrifice that Werther dares to ask of her. She weeps before Sophie, her angel of consolation; her tears flow again on reading Ossian; they fall once more over Werther’s blood-soaked body. These final tears he refuses, however, for he is now free and happy. Werther is a long requiem, a “lacrimose dies illa”, truly a day of tears and, without doubt, the most personal of all Massenet’s works. Roberto Alagna and Karine Deshayes portray the two unhappy lovers in the now legendary production by Benoît Jacquot, conducted by Michel Plasson.

The composer

Jules Massenet was born on May 12th 1842 in Montaud, France and died on August 13th 1912 in Paris. After receiving a musical education from his mother who gave lessons to balance the family budget, Massenet entered the Conservatoire at a very early age and studied theory of music, piano and harmony before joining Ambroise Thomas’s composition class in 1861. In 1863 he won the Grand Prix de Rome and spent two years at the Villa Medici where he composed numerous outlines for projects which would form the basis of his future works. The first of these, performed after his return to France, was Grand’-Tante, a one-act opera commissioned by the directors of the Opéra-Comique. There followed, among others: Don César de Bazan (1872), Le Roi de Lahore (1877), Hérodiade (1881), Manon (1884), Le Cid (1885), Esclarmonde (1889), Thaïs (1894), Sapho (1897), Cendrillon (1899) and Don Quichotte (1910).
Massenet soon gained the stature of an “official composer”. Awarded the Légion d’Honneur, appointed Professor of Composition at the Conservatoire and elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, his influence was such that certain composers like Debussy did not hesitate to “Massenetise” their cantatas in order to win the Prix de Rome. From a musical point of view, Massenet preferred to work within the existing musical tradition rather than to break with it.

The work

The libretto is based on Goethe’s famous epistolary novel that Massenet probably knew from his stay in Bayreuth in 1886. Unlike the librettos of Gounod’s Faust or Ambroise Thomas’ Mignon, it follows the original text very closely. Nevertheless the importance given to Charlotte’s role is one of the essential differences: relegated to the background in the novel (where the hero, the author of the letters, acted alone), she plays just as important a role as Werther himself in the opera. The work is clearly modelled on the French conception of a typically German romance. The episodes are linked together in a style reminiscent of genre painting, each act bearing a title as if it were a chapter in a picture book. Given this aesthetic structure, the most successful episodes are those born of each character’s inner struggles, resulting from the interchange – conflicting or otherwise – between Werther, Charlotte and Albert and giving rise to extensive melancholic outpourings.
The orchestration reflects the work’s overall conception. Although making use of a large-scale orchestra, Massenet’s transparent musical texture is often suggestive of chamber music. The vocal style does not aim at virtuoso effects, preferring as it does dialogue and dramatic interaction. The interplay between the different musical motifs and their relationship with the characters establishes a parallel with Wagner’s leitmotifs. However Massenet distances himself from the latter, seeking rather to create a French “fin de siècle” style, characterised by its delicacy, elegance and sensibility.
From the very first performance of his opera, where the title Mattia Battistini, a baritone with a agile and effortless high range, asked him to write a new baritone version for him. This version was completed ten years later in 1902.

The first performance

Werther was first performed at the Imperial Opera of Vienna on February 16th 1892, in German, with the composer himself conducting.

The work at the Paris Opera

Werther’s Parisian career took place, for the most part, at the Opéra-Comique, where the opera had been performed 1389 times by 1978. Among the countless singers who tackled the main roles were Georges Thill, Raoul Jobin, Albert Lance, Alain Vanzo (Werther), Ninon Vallin, Denise Scharley, Rita Gorr, Nadine Denize (Charlotte), Jean Vieuille, Gabriel Bacquier, Yves Bisson (Albert). The work was not performed at the Palais Garnier until 1984, under the baguette of Georges Prêtre, with Alfredo Kraus / Neil Schicoff (Werther), Lucia Valentini-Terrani / Tatiana Troyanos (Charlotte) and Gino Quilico (Albert). In 2009, a new production was presented in the Opéra Bastille, staged by Jürgen Rose, with alternately Rolando Villazon and Ludovic Tézier in the title-role and Susan Graham in the part of Charlotte. The opera was back at the Opéra Bastille in 2010, staged by Benoît Jacquot, with Jonas Kaufmann and Sophie Koch. It is this production which is being performed this season.

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