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Werther

The Royal Opera
17 September—5 October 2019
Main Stage

Benoît Jacquot’s production of Massenet’s tragic opera explores the conflict between duty and our most passionate desires.

When to see it

The Story

Werther loves Charlotte, but she promised her mother on her deathbed that she would marry Albert. After the marriage Charlotte suggests that Werther should travel – but not forget her.

Charlotte, unhappily married, has fallen in love with Werther through his letters. He returns unexpectedly; Charlotte sends him away. Werther shoots himself and dies in Charlotte’s arms.

Background

Jules Massenet began thinking about making an opera from Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sorrows of Young Werther) as early as 1880, before he started work on Manon – though in his memoirs he claimed inspiration came in 1886 during a visit to Bayreuth to see Wagner’s Parsifal. He began the score in 1885 and finished it in 1887, but Werther’s premiere did not come until 1892, when the Vienna Hofoper requested another Massenet work after the success of the local premiere of Manon. It has been a permanent part of the international repertory since 1903. Werther and Manon have proved Massenet’s most enduringly popular works.

The excellent libretto, prepared by Edouard Blau and Paul Milliet, distills Goethe’s Romantic masterpiece – their shortened version intensifies and makes more romantic Goethe’s depiction of two passionate people who inadvertently cause each other pain. Its spareness affords Massenet the opportunity to make his music not only delve into the psyches of the central couple but also describe the damage they cause to Sophie and Albert. The score displays Massenet’s gift for melody, with the ‘Clair de lune’, ‘Lied d’Ossian’ and Charlotte’s Act III soliloquy now some of his most loved music. Director Benoît Jacquot’s 2004 production for The Royal Opera, with elegant set designs by Charles Edwards, makes manifest the opera’s theme of keeping up appearances while torrid passions rage beneath.

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