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drame lyrique by Jules Massenet
Eugene Grasset - Jules Massenet - Werther.jpg
Grasset poster for 1893 French premiere of Werther
Based on Die Leiden des jungen Werther
by Johann Wolfgang Goethe
16 February 1892 (1892-02-16)
Hofoper, Vienna (in German)

Werther is an opera (drame lyrique) in four acts by Jules Massenet to a French libretto by Édouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hartmann (who used the pseudonym Henri Grémont). It is loosely based on Goethe's epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther , which was based both on fact and on Goethe's own early life. Earlier examples of operas using the story were made by Kreutzer (1792) and Pucitta (1802). [1]


Performance history

Massenet started composing Werther in 1885, completing it in 1887. He submitted it to Léon Carvalho, the director of the Paris Opéra-Comique, that year, but Carvalho declined to accept it on the grounds that the scenario was too serious. [1] With the disruption of the fire at the Opéra-Comique and Massenet's work on other operatic projects (especially Esclarmonde ), it was put to one side, until the Vienna Opera, pleased with the success of Manon , asked the composer for a new work. Werther received its premiere on 16 February 1892 (in a German version translated by Max Kalbeck) at the Imperial Theatre Hofoper in Vienna. [1]

The French-language premiere followed in Geneva on 27 December 1892. [2] The first performance in France was given by the Opéra-Comique at the Théâtre Lyrique on the Place du Châtelet in Paris on 16 January 1893, with Marie Delna as Charlotte and Guillaume Ibos in the title role, conducted by Jules Danbé, but was not immediately successful. [1]

Werther entered the repertoire at the Opéra-Comique in 1903 in a production supervised by Albert Carré, [1] and over the next half-century the opera was performed over 1,100 times there, Léon Beyle becoming a distinguished interpreter of Werther. [3]

The United States premiere with the Metropolitan Opera took place in Chicago on 29 March 1894 and then in the company's main house in New York City three weeks later. [4] The UK premiere was a one-off performance at Covent Garden, London, on 11 June 1894 [2] with Emma Eames as Charlotte, Sigrid Arnoldson as Sophie, and Jean de Reszke in the title role.

Werther is still regularly performed around the world and has been recorded many times. Although the role of Werther was written for a tenor, Massenet adjusted it for a baritone, when Mattia Battistini sang it in Saint Petersburg in 1902. It is very occasionally performed in this version, in which the changes affect only the vocal line for the title character. There are no other changes to the words, to the lines for other characters, or to the orchestration.


Ernest van Dyck in the title role, its first singer, ca. 1892 Ernest Van Dyck as Werther - NGO4p1142.jpg
Ernest van Dyck in the title role, its first singer, ca. 1892
Role Voice type Premiere cast, 16 February 1892 [5]
(Conductor: Wilhelm Jahn)
Charlotte, aged 20 mezzo-soprano Marie Renard
Sophie, her sister, aged 15 soprano Ellen Brandt-Forster
Werther, a young poet, aged 23 tenor Ernest van Dyck
Albert, betrothed to Charlotte; aged 25 baritone Franz Neidl
Le Bailli, Charlotte's father; aged 50 bass Karl Mayerhofer
Schmidt, a friend of the BaillitenorAnton Schlittenhelm
Johann, a friend of the BaillibaritoneBenedikt Felix
Brühlmann, a young mantenorAugust Stoll
Käthchen, Brühlmann's fiancée of seven yearsmezzo-sopranoEmma Karlona
Children of the Bailli – Fritz, Max, Hans, Karl, Gretel, Clarachildren's voices
Inhabitants of Wetzlar, guests, servants; off-stage women's and children's voices


2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (doubling English horns), 2 clarinets in B-flat and A, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 2 cornets in B-flat and A, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (1) (bass drum, triangle), harp, strings.


Time: Within the period July to December, in an undefined year in the 1780s.
Place: Wetzlar in Germany.
Claire Croiza as Charlotte in 1907 Claire Croiza as Charlotte in Massenet's Werther.jpg
Claire Croiza as Charlotte in 1907

Act 1

In July, the widowed Bailiff (a Magistrate, rather than one who comes to seize property), is teaching his six youngest children a Christmas carol ("Noël! Jésus vient de naître"). His drinking companions, Johann and Schmidt, arrive as Charlotte, the eldest daughter, dresses for a ball. Since her fiancé Albert is away, she is to be escorted by Werther, whom the Bailiff and his companions find gloomy. Werther arrives ("O Nature, pleine de grâce"), and watches as Charlotte prepares her young siblings' supper, just as her mother had before she died. He greets her and they leave for the ball. Albert returns unexpectedly after a six-month trip. He is unsure of Charlotte's intentions and disappointed not to find her at home, but is reassured and consoled by Charlotte's younger sister Sophie. He leaves after promising to return in the morning. After an orchestral interlude, Werther and Charlotte return very late; he is already enamoured of her. His declaration of love is interrupted by the announcement of Albert's return. Charlotte recalls how she promised her dying mother she would marry Albert. Werther is in despair.

Act 2

It is three months later, and Charlotte and Albert are now married. They walk happily to church to celebrate the minister's 50th wedding anniversary, followed by the disconsolate Werther ("Un autre est son époux!"). First Albert and then Sophie ("Du gai soleil, plein de flamme") try to cheer him up. When Charlotte exits the church, he speaks to her of their first meeting. Charlotte begs Werther to leave her, though she indicates that she would be willing to receive him again on Christmas Day. Werther contemplates suicide ("Lorsque l'enfant revient d'un voyage"). He encounters Sophie but the tearful girl does not understand his distressing behavior. Albert now realizes that Werther loves Charlotte.

Act 3

Charlotte is at home alone on Christmas Eve. She spends time rereading the letters that she has received from Werther ("Werther! Qui m'aurait dit ... Ces lettres!"), wondering how the young poet is and how she had the strength to send him away. Sophie comes in and tries to cheer up her older sister ("Ah! le rire est béni"), though Charlotte is not to be consoled ("Va! laisse couler mes larmes"). Suddenly Werther appears, and while he reads to her some poetry of Ossian ("Pourquoi me réveiller?"), he realizes that she does indeed return his love. They embrace for a moment, but she quickly bids him farewell. He leaves with thoughts of suicide. Albert returns home to find his wife distraught. Werther sends a messenger to Albert, requesting to borrow his pistols, explaining he is going on an extended trip. After the servant has taken them, Charlotte has a terrible premonition and hurries to find Werther. An orchestral intermezzo ("La nuit de Noël") leads without a break into the final Act.

Act 4

"The death of Werther": At Werther's apartment, Charlotte has arrived too late to stop him from shooting himself; he is dying. She consoles him by declaring her love. He asks for forgiveness. After he dies, Charlotte faints. Outside children are heard singing the Christmas carol.

Noted arias


Scene from a 2019 Florida Grand Opera production Werther (47789434092).jpg
Scene from a 2019 Florida Grand Opera production

A well-regarded recording of the complete opera was made in January 1931 by French Columbia with a French cast and the orchestra and chorus of the Opéra-Comique under the direction of Élie Cohen. Henry Fogel of Fanfare magazine, writing in 1992, counted 14 complete recordings and considered it the finest of the lot. [6] His colleague, James Camner, reviewing the Opera d'Oro reissue in 2003, called it "one of the treasures of recorded opera. ... Unfortunately, the transfer is over filtered. The high frequencies are lost, giving the performance an unwarranted flatness. Happily, Naxos offers the same recording expertly transferred by Ward Marston, and acquiring it is a must." [7] Alan Blyth, while giving a very positive review of the reissue of the recording with Albert Lance as Werther and Rita Gorr as Charlotte in 2004, nevertheless pointed out that "neither quite has the ideal subtlety of the best Massenet singers, such as Vallin and Thill on the classic, pre-war set, now on Naxos". [8]

In addition, many of the greatest French and Italian singers of the past century or more have recorded individual arias from Massenet's masterwork.

opera house and orchestra
Label [9] Notes
1931 Ninon Vallin,
Germaine Féraldy,
Georges Thill,
Marcel Roque
Élie Cohen
Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra-Comique
Originally French Columbia
CD: Naxos 8.110061-62,
Opera d'Oro OPD 1366
1934 Gianna Pederzini,

Marisa Merlo, Tito Schipa, Piero Biasini

Franco Ghione

Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala di Milano

Edizioni Timaclub 1983in Italian
1952 Oralia Domínguez,
Eugenia Rocabruna,
Giuseppe Di Stefano,
Piero Campolonghi
Guido Picco
Orchestra e Coro del Palacio de las Bellas Artes
CD: Gala
Cat: B0040V420O
In Italian
1953 Pia Tassinari,
Vittoria Neviani,
Ferruccio Tagliavini,
Marcello Cortis
Francesco Molinari-Pradelli
Coro di Voci Bianchi, Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino
CD: Warner-Fonit
Cat: 8573 87494-2
1953 Suzanne Juyol,
Agnes Léger,
Charles Richard,
Roger Bourdin
Georges Sébastian
Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra-Comique
Originally Nixa/Urania
CD: Andromeda
Cat: ANDRCD 5073
1954 Maria Maksakova,
Maria Zvezdina,
Ivan Kozlovsky,
Vladimir Sakharov
Onissim Bron
Moscow Radio Orchestra
CD: Myto
Cat: B000027HNO
In Russian
1959 Leyla Gencer,
Giuliana Tavolaccini,
Ferruccio Tagliavini,
Mario Borriello
Carlo Felice Cillario
Coro di Teatro Verdi di Trieste Orchestra e Coro
CD: Opera d'Oro
Cat: 1234
In Italian
1964 Rita Gorr,
Mady Mesplé,
Albert Lance,
Gabriel Bacquier
Jésus Etcheverry
Orchestra and Chorus of the Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française
CD: Accord
Cat: 472 917-2
1968-69 Victoria de los Ángeles,
Mady Mesplé,
Nicolai Gedda,
Roger Soyer
Georges Prêtre
Orchestre de Paris
Cat: 562 6272
1971 Virginia Zeani,
Valeria Mariconda,
Alfredo Kraus,
Domenico Trimarchi
Antonino Votto
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Massimo di Palermo
CD: G.O.P.
Cat: 749-CD2
In Italian
1977 Brigitte Fassbaender,
Marianne Seibel,
Plácido Domingo,
Hans Günther Nöcker
Jesús López Cobos
Bayerisches Staatsorchester
CD: Orfeo
Cat: B00000AFDE
1979 Tatiana Troyanos,
Christine Barbaux,
Alfredo Kraus,
Matteo Manuguerra
Michel Plasson
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Cat: 7 49610-2
1979 Elena Obraztsova,
Arleen Auger,
Plácido Domingo,
Franz Grundheber
Riccardo Chailly
Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra
CD: Deutsche Grammophon
Cat: 477 5652-1
1980 Frederica von Stade,
Isobel Buchanan,
José Carreras,
Thomas Allen
Sir Colin Davis
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
CD: Philips
Cat: 416 654-2
1985 Brigitte Fassbaender,
Magdaléna Hajossyová,
Peter Dvorský,
Hans Helm
Libor Pešek
Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra,
Chorus of the Bambini di Praga
(Television film directed by Petr Weigl)
CD (soundtrack): Supraphon
Cat: 11 1547-2 632
LD: Amadeo PHLK 7503
DVD: Image Entertainment [10]
1998 Vesselina Kasarova,
Dawn Kotoski,
Ramón Vargas,
Christopher Schaldenbrand
Vladimir Jurowski
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
CD: RCA Victor
Cat: 74321 58224-2
1998 Angela Gheorghiu,
Patricia Petibon,
Roberto Alagna,
Thomas Hampson
Antonio Pappano
London Symphony Orchestra
Cat: EMI 81849
1999 Béatrice Uria-Monzon,
Jaël Azzaretti,
Marcus Haddock,
René Massis
Jean-Claude Casadesus
Orchestre National de Lille
CD: Naxos
Cat: 8.660072-73
2005 Elīna Garanča,
Ileana Tonca,
Marcelo Álvarez,
Adrian Eröd
Philippe Jordan
Vienna State Opera
(Video of a performance in March)
2004 Susan Graham,
Sandrine Piau,
Thomas Hampson (baritone),
Stéphane Degout
Michel Plasson
Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse
(Video of a concert performance on 29 April)
DVD: Virgin Classics
Cat: 359257-9
2010 Sophie Koch,
Anne-Catherine Gillet,
Jonas Kaufmann,
Ludovic Tézier
Michel Plasson
Opéra National de Paris
DVD: Decca
Cat: B0014794-09 [11] [12]
2012Sophie Koch,
Eri Nakamura,
Rolando Villazón,
Audun Iversen
Antonio Pappano
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
CD: Deutsche Grammophon
Cat: 0289 477 9340 3 [13]
2018Anna Stéphany,
Mélissa Petit,
Juan Diego Flórez,
Audun Iversen
Cornelius Meister
Orchestra of the Zürich Opera House
(Video of a 2017 performance)
DVD / Blu-Ray: Accentus
Cat: ACC10427 (Blu-Ray), ACC20427 (DVD)

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Milnes R. Werther. In: The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Macmillan, London and New York, 1997.
  2. 1 2 Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians , 5th ed., 1954
  3. Wolff, Stéphane. Un demi-siècle d'Opéra-Comique (1900–1950). André Bonne, Paris, 1953.
  4. MetOpera database
  5. Werther page at the French Art Lyrique webpage accessed 5 September 2014.
  6. Fogel, Henry (September/October 1992). Review of the recording with Georges Thill as Werther (EMI CHS 7 63195 2). Fanfare, 16 (1). Accessed November 16, 2010. Subscription required.
  7. Camner, James (July/August 2003). Review of the recording with Georges Thill as Werther (OPERA D'ORO OD 1366). Fanfare, 26 (6). Accessed November 16, 2010. Subscription required.
  8. Blyth, Alan (March 2004). "Werther's Return". Gramophone , p. 83]. Accessed November 16, 2010.
  9. Recordings of Werther on operadis-opera-discography.org.uk
  10. 1985 recording of Werther, amazon.com
  11. 2010 recording of Werther, amazon.com
  12. Performance, both conductor and singers, are reviewed quite favorably by Matthew Gurewitsch in Opera News (February 2011, p. 66). He has strong reservations about the production and the video direction, however.
  13. Details of this recording of Werther on DeutscheGrammophon.com

Further reading