In his ongoing efforts
to enlighten the novice opera fan Thomson Smillie has spent
a great deal of time concentrating on Mozart, Puccini, Rossini,
Verdi, and Wagner. While that is certainly appropriate, he has
largely ignored French opera. Here he begins to rectify that
apparent oversight with Massenet’s “Werther”, perhaps the pinnacle
of the Gallic genre.
Before he begins
the actual discussion of the plot or music Smillie gives a nearly
twenty minute overview of the entire genre, going back to the
beginnings with Lully. He also explains the reasons for the
ballet in the French opera and for the archetypal French five-movement
grand opera. As he continues, he goes through the litany of
great French opera composers, ultimately arriving at Massenet,
the man who truly can be considered the last great composer
of French grand opera.
a brooding, moody work based on the work of Goethe, loosely
following a pair of true stories. Part of the story involves
the unrequited love of Goethe himself. Into this is woven the
suicide of a friend of young Goethe’s when spurned by a married
woman. The focus, as is invariably the case in the ‘Opera Explained’
series, is the plot interspersed with the important musical
passages and explanations of the cultural milieu. For instance
there is a long discussion of the significance of suicide in
France at the end of the 19th century, as well as
examination of the French affinity for nature in art and libretto.
The text does a fine job of pointing out the illustrative use
of the orchestra, highlighting things such as how ascending
scales represent rising hopes. This is the type of interspersion
that makes the CD valuable for both the novice and the seasoned
fan of opera.
The source recording
for the samples is quite well performed recorded and produced.
Additionally, the text in the CD booklet gives additional information
not expressly stated by David Timson, the narrator. As a result
the entire package is exemplary of how a teaching tool should
It should probably
be noted that this is not a recording of the opera itself, but
merely has excerpts. If you want a recording of Werther’s Massenet
then this is definitely not the place to look. It does not have
even a single piece in its entirety. However, should one be
preparing to see the opera or want to understand the work this
is an excellent place to go.
see also Review
by Göran Forsling