The Met Streams Werther

By Lynne Gray, PhD

Note: This opera can be seen on

Monday, May 11

Massenet’s Werther ~ 2Hrs. 22 Mins.

Starring Lisette Oropesa, Sophie Koch, Jonas Kaufmann, Jonathan Summers, and David Bižić, conducted by Alain Altinoglu. From March 15, 2014.

This one is for the hopeless romantics among us, and even though I saw it (twice!) in person at the Met – no one who comes to my classes will be surprised to hear that I’ll probably watch it twice on Monday and Tuesday! Jonas Kaufmann brings aching intensity and vocal charisma to the tortured title hero of Massenet’s adaptation of Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. Sophie Koch, in her Met debut, is an appealing and elegant Charlotte, the object of Werther’s passionate affection. Lisette Oropesa as Charlotte’s sister, Sophie, David Bižić as Albert, the man she marries to fulfill her mother’s dying wish, and Jonathan Summers as Le Bailli, her father, are the co-stars of this meltingly beautiful production. Richard Eyre’s atmospheric setting designs are appealingly complimented by rising maestro Alain Altinoglu’s conducting.

Massenet (1842-1912) was a French romantic composer known primarily for his operas – well over 30, including: Manon, Thaïs, Cendrillon, Don Quichotte, Hérodiade, Esclarmonde and of course, Werther). His operas were particularly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but his works are enjoying something of a rediscovery lately, and he is now widely acknowledged as one of the greatest melodists of his era. So be prepared for some beautiful music and memorable arias.

The opera’s story is closely connected to the seasons and plays itself out between a lovely summer day in July and a bleak winter Christmas Eve in December. The prelude suggests a recent winter funeral – a mother has died leaving her husband and eldest daughter to raise the many younger children. We experience the seasons changing both through the music and the extensive use of video projections which beautifully set each season’s mood. Wendall Harrington, the talented video director also uses projections in Act I to suggest the Bailiff’s house and the natural beauty of its surroundings, which are passionately described by the poet Werther in his first aria (“O Nature, pleine de grâce”), as he observes the warm family scene taking place in their garden:

O, Nature, full of grace,
Queen of time and space,
deign to welcome whoever passes
and salutes you, humble mortal.
Mysterious silence!… O solemn calm!
Everything attracts me and pleases me!…

Werther is there to escort Charlotte to a ball in town. He is, however, not aware that she has accepted his invitation only because her fiancé, the man she promised her dying mother she would marry, is off in the army.

The ball scene is almost completely created by lovely video projections. We see Werther’s profound love for Charlotte and her growing love for him. Returning home together late on that moonlit evening, praising Charlotte’s beauty and her devotion to her family, Werther passionately declares his love for her. She is completely caught up in the spell, and they are about to kiss when her father calls out from the house to tell her that Albert is back. The spell is cruelly broken. Charlotte admits that Albert is the man she promised her dying mother to marry. Werther is devastated.

In Act II, it is already fall. The muted orange, golden and green projections on the village scenery reflect the more somber fall mood. Charlotte and Albert have been married for several months and Werther is still moody and tormented. He rebuffs Sophie’s attempts to cheer him up and is visibly pained by the sight of Charlotte. He attempts to talk with her, and it is obvious she is moved, but she reminds him of her duties as a wife and asks him, for the good of them both, to leave the village until at least Christmas.

The final acts take place on Christmas Eve. Werther has endured the long separation but has written Charlotte many letters which we now see her re-reading (a bit obsessively) (“Werther! Qui m’aurait dit … Ces lettres!”) (“Werther … Who would have told me the place that in my heart he occupies today…? my soul is full of him…”). Sophie enters and tries to cheer her up but is unsuccessful and leaves. Suddenly a desolate Werther appears and together they revisit tender memories of music and poetry they have shared. He reads her some moving poetry (“Pourquoi me réveiller?”) (“Why do you awaken me? o breath of Spring?”) and as both of their emotions intensify, he kisses her. In a panic she runs from the room and, broken, Werther contemplates suicide.

As usual, I am reluctant to spoil an incredibly moving ending, but some moments remain etched in memory: Charlotte’s anguish as she realizes how much she truly loves Werther even though there is no hope; Charlotte standing frozen at the front of the stage, while her husband, Albert, demands that she fetch him the pistols Werther has asked to borrow; Werther’s pain as he attempts to write Charlotte one last letter; and his final request to be buried under the Linden trees they love as he dies in Charlotte’s loving embrace – she (like Isolde) has arrived too late. As was the case a few nights ago for Hamlet, the Met has improvised an ending for Charlotte which was not specifically in the original. Time for more tissues…..

Picture Credits

1.              Jonas Kaufmann as the brooding, lovesick poet Werther in Massenet’s “Werther” at the Met. Photo Credit… Ken Howard /The Metropolitan Opera.

2.              Sophie Koch as Charlotte in Massenet’s “Werther” at the Met. Photo Credit… Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera.

3.               Jonas Kaufmann as Werther and Sophie Koch as Charlotte in Massenet’s “Werther” at the Met. Photo Credit… Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera.

4.              Jonas Kaufmann as Werther and Sophie Koch as Charlotte in Massenet’s “Werther” at the Met. Photo Credit… Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera.

5.              Jonas Kaufmann as Werther and Sophie Koch as Charlotte in Massenet’s “Werther” at the Met. Photo Credit… Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera.

6.              Jonas Kaufmann as Werther and Sophie Koch as Charlotte in Massenet’s “Werther” at the Met. Photo Credit… Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera.

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