This is really Alagna's album for Massenet has him, as Werther, firmly centre
stage in this rather mawkish, melodramatic opera about the corrosive effects
of obsessive love and the struggles of conscience between passion and duty.
But the melodies are glorious and Alagna is a magnificent Werther, doomed
to despair and suicide.
Massenet based his opera on Goethe's novel, Die Leiden des jungen
Werthers (1774). Goethe's novel is part autobiographical and part based
on fact, the story of a friend who had committed suicide for the love of
a woman, using the husband's pistols; the note he sent asking to borrow them
is quoted both in the book and the opera.
When Massenet completed Werther, in 1887, it was turned down by the management
of the Opéra-Comique because they thought it was too gloomy. Then,
after the success of his other famous opera, Manon, he took Werther
out of the drawer and dusted it down. It was premiered in Vienna in February
1892 with the Belgian tenor, Ernest Van Dyke (a famous Wagnerian) for whom
Massenet added the strenuous 'Desolation' - 'Un autre est son êpoux'
in Act II. The opera was not staged in Paris until 1893, a full six years
after its completion. It was a failure and only achieved its popularity there
on its revival in 1903.
The opera is set in the eighteenth century. The opening orchestral Prelude
immediately sets the mood, for it is heavy with foreboding. The gloom is
gradually dispelled as the curtain rises on the terrace of a house in Wetzlar
where the Bailiff, a widower, (sung with comfortable authority by Jean-Philippe
Courtis) is surrounded by six of his children. He is teaching them carols
in preparation for Christmas. His friends, Johann and Schmidt, come to take
him out drinking. They discuss Werther and from their conversation we note
he is quiet, intense and melancholic with artistic preferences - not their
sort of fellow at all and they leave singing a jolly drinking song. When
Werther enters this initial impression is confirmed for he immediately sings
dreamily of the picturesque village, asking the sun to envelop him in its
warmth. Charlotte appears dressed for the ball but first prepares the children's
supper as the Bailiff welcomes Werther into his house. Werther and Charlotte
set off for the ball. As night falls Albert returns unexpectedly afterr a
long absence and asks Charlotte's sister, Sophie if Charlotte still thinks
of him. Sophie reassures him and tells him of the preparations for their
impending wedding. Thomas Hampson as a staunch and reliable Albert, now has
his moment of passion in his Act I aria, 'Elle m'aime!
Elle pense à
moi!' (She loves me!
She thinks of me!) with the orchestra commenting
ironically for Werther has already made an impact on Charlotte.
Act I ends with the return of Werther and Charlotte from the ball. It is
Pappano creates a magical atmosphere that seems to make Alagna's Werther
blissfully walk on air, for he has fallen helplessly in love. In ecstasy
he sings - 'Ah! pourvu que je voie ces yeux toujours..' (Ah! provided I may
see these eyes always
). But then he is plunged into despair when the
Bialiff announces the return of Albert, and he realises Charlotte is betrothed
to another. When Charlotte tells him that she had promised her dying mother
that she would marry Albert, Werther struggles to tell her that she should
keep her promise and the curtain falls on Act I with Werther desolated.
Act II. It is now September of the same year. Albert and Charlotte have been
married for three months. They speak of their contented life together as
they go to church but Werther has been watching. The demonic music in the
orchestra leaves you in no doubt about his rage and jealousy and you feel
the intensity of his anguish in his aria, 'Un autre est son êpoux!'
(Another is her husband!
) Albert graciously tells Werther that he
understands his situation and symathises with him. Werther replies that he
will be loyal to both. Werther beleieves he can never be happy again and
vows to leave Wetlzar but when he sees Charlotte coming out of church he
wavers. Charlotte, however, reminds him that she is married and her duty
is to her husband. She tells him to find another but adds somewhat sinisterly
that he might return at Christmas.
Act III. It is now Christmas Eve and Charlotte is reading the letters she
has received from the lovelorn Werther. Until now, Charlotte has been the
passive character reacting almost laconically to the emotions of Werther
and those around her giving Gheorghiu little expressive scope. But now when
she reads the letters, she is deeply poignant, as she confesses the love
she cannot admit to him, 'Werther! Werther!
mon âme est pleine
de lui!' (Werther
my thoughts are full of him!). Sophie (Patricia Petibon
) notices Charlotte's gloom and tries to cheer her in her aria 'Ah! le rire
est béni, joyeux, léger, sonore! (Ah! Laughter is blessed,
merry, light, ringing!) Sophie goes on to suggest that laughter has wings,
that it is a bird; and Pappano follows with a beautiful accompaniment that
evokes the flight and song of the birds. Petibon shines as Sophie, herself
hopelessly in love with Werther; she is pure and innocent, yet shows an
understanding and maturity beyond her years. Werther appears haggard and
still besotted. This time he nearly succeeds in persuading Charlotte away
from her marriage vows but she manages to repulse him. This scene is the
emotional climax of the opera as the couple remember the moments they had
shared enjoying music and literature and Werther sings 'Pourquoi me
réveiller?' (Why awaken me?) from his dreams to the torture of reality.
Werther leaves before Albert returns but sends a message to borrow Albert's
Act IV begins with another chilly and doom-laden orchestral interlude before
Charlotte filled with foreboding rushes to Werther's apartment where she
finds him dying. He has used the duelling pistols to deadly effect. As the
voices of the children are heard singing the Christmas carols, Werther dies
in Charlotte's arms. She now openly declares her love for him, and in a
passionate duet they sing of their love's redemption.
Pappano goes all out for Massenet's dramatic and melodramatic music and delivers
a tremendously exciting reading that is not without irony, subtlety and finesse.
This is an admirable recording Some might think Gheorghiu, although mostly
impressive enough, is a trifle disappointing in her expressive range compared
to Karasova on the rival new RCA release.