I suppose that by now those who follow this blog ardently must have realized that I am not really very good at keeping my New Year’s Resolutions, which is why for 2014 I made none to speak of. Considering that last year I promised myself I would at least finish the opera count-down, it saddens me to admit that I was unable to do so. Obviously, otherwise this would not be No. 6 on the list, but an entirely different entry altogether. It is for two reasons that this is so: Reason No. 1 is a significant lack of time on my part. I have begun an entirely new chapter in my life, away from everything familiar and the everyday struggles of getting used to a new lifestyle do drag on considerably. Reason No. 2 is a lack of an inspiring title. It has always been, to the chagrin of my teachers at school, a huge problem of mine that I cannot write anything – short or long – if the title doesn’t fit. Occasionally, and only because I am being pushed by deadlines, I deliver texts for the odd publication here and there. But, even though I know the operas on the list, I cannot continue with the count-down, when I don’t have a title. It is a terrible problem, but one I cannot control or overcome. Therefore, with an extremely heavy heart and an even worse title to begin with, I give you my first contribution to 2014 – and no, it is not an opera by Richard Strauss, despite it being a Richard Strauss year! (Finally, because all this Wagner-Verdi craze of 2013 was really getting on my nerves… Especially the Wagner part!)
SPOILER ALERT! EITHER READ THE BOOK OR WATCH THE OPERA BEFORE VENTURING FURTHER ON! ALTHOUGH, COME TO THINK OF IT, YOU PROBABLY KNOW WHAT HAPPENS ALREADY, EVEN IF YOU DO NEITHER…
A French opera based on a German novel authored by one of the most important authors of European history, can either be better than the book or worse. I am not particularly fond of the French in general, but I do grant them that they have some kick ass composers and they are pretty much the only reason why I would learn French, should I ever decide to learn another foreign language. Apart from French music however, I do not really want to have many dealings with France or its people – which is why I am probably going to end up either marrying a French guy, or having to live and work in France at some point in my life, just to prove me wrong, as is Life’s want…! Back to the opera, though, I am obviously talking about Jules Massenet and his version of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of young Werther” (now there’s a catchy title!)
The premise of the story is rather simple and easily explained: said “young Werther” is a poet/dreamer/nature lover/childish person who falls in love with kindhearted/duty bound/honorable/nurturing Charlotte, who marries Albert (no descriptive adjectives for him). Said “young Werther” commits suicide. End of story. By the way, this has got to be the shortest plot description I am ever going to make here! It most definitely is the shortest so far…
Ok, so now we know what happens. It doesn’t really sound appealing, right? I mean, you have an egotistical protagonist who commits suicide with Albert’s gun, just because he can’t have Charlotte. Charming! Well, it is not so simple. One of the musical arguments I have with my mother is about French opera. She claims that there are no real memorable melodies in it. Well, I beg to differ. And “Werther” is one of the many examples that affirm my opinion. There are a number of scenes that include some of the most beautiful and expressive melodies ever written. Yes, admittedly they are typically French, in that they are filled with pathos and melodrama and gravity and all the things that make French music different from Italian or German music. It doesn’t really flow, nor does it have a “beat”, but this pathetic style is in itself beautiful and strangely fits the characters of this particular work extremely well.
And that brings me to the second point that makes this opera interesting: the characters. Granted, the whole plot in the opera revolves around Werther and Charlotte, they have the most to sing and the entire last act is dominated by them. And granted, too, one might even argue that neither character undergoes a major change. Perhaps that is most true for Werther. His sole purpose in life is to woe Charlotte and be an artist. However, it is clear that the second part is rather unimportant to him from the moment he meets her. The tragedy in their case is a result of both Charlotte’s sense of duty and Werther’s weak character. This weakness is evident in the fact that he only fights for her when she is alone with him and never when Albert is present. He takes the easy way out. He asserts his power only in front of Charlotte and then immediately regrets doing so. Werther is no fighter. He doesn’t really know how to fight. In reality he is the typical egotist. And because he also is an artist, he needs someone to both inspire and commend him. Charlotte, in his mind, is that Muse he needs, but she turns out to be a dark one.
In truth, this opera is concentrated on Charlotte. She is the one that has to suffer for everything. Let us consider this for a moment: Indeed, the two of them would make a brilliant couple if Albert were not in the middle. Why? Because Werther, as an artist, is unable to care for himself and Charlotte is a successful housewife, taking on the role of the mother to her little siblings early on, with her mother’s passing. She would take care of the artist and be his inspiration at the same time. And it would please her too, because she is the kind of person that lives to serve others. But, there is the small hiccup called Albert and Charlotte’s oath to her dying mother that she would marry him. So, this idyllic idea cannot be realized. Charlotte does love Albert, but that love is not a carnal love; it is a love borne from duty. Werther is the wakeup call for her sexuality, but she cannot give in to that, because she feels bound by duty.
And then there is the final act. Up to that point the opera pretty much follows the events of the book by condensing them of course to the absolute essentials. It is this final act that really makes the opera better than the book however and the reason is this: in the book, Werther shoots himself with Albert’s gun and dies about a day later (on Christmas day) with Charlotte’s siblings all around him. The last thing he experiences is the touch of children’s lips on his face, which is according to his love of children and his own self – the child that is trapped inside a grown-ups body. But Charlotte is not present in the scene, so the romance is not really concluded. The opera takes a different approach to that and for the better: Werther shoots himself with Albert’s gun again on Christmas day, but this time Charlotte finds him and the two of them spend some truly tragic moments together, with sublime music to make things even worse. And there is also the outrageous request that Werther makes of Charlotte, which is the absolute crowning of his egotism and proves once again that Charlotte is a victim of her own sense of duty: he asks that she visit his grave every single day, for the rest of her life, to weep for him and remember him and their unrequited love. Of course we all know that Charlotte is going to do that, driving herself mad with guilt probably and most definitely ruining her marriage with Albert. So, in the opera’s end, Werther gets what he wants only he is not there to live it!
I cannot exactly explain why this particular opera makes it into my Top 10. Perhaps it was the truly emotional performances of Vesselina Kasarova in Munich that make it so special to me. I saw the production with her three times and each time I was moved to the core by it. It is a brilliant production (thank God the production has been recorded, not in Munich unfortunately and not with Kasarova, but still it is worth it). It is an extremely delicate staging, with constant references to Goethe’s text as well scribbled all over the walls. I am glad someone took the trouble to upload it on YouTube (you will find them if you search for "Massenet - Werther Le Bastille 2009) and I do urge you to find them! I do believe that, should you take the time to watch it from beginning to end you will understand what I mean about this particular work. Also, I feel obliged to the insightful analysis we made of Goethe’s text during my bachelor studies in Greece in an extremely interesting seminar. It really opened a new perspective on the opera for me, which might explain as well my particular affection for this work.
Hopefully I have not made your first days of 2014 bleaker than they should be with this little homage to Massenet. I promise that there is some laughter again further down the list… So, Happy New Year everyone and don’t forget: it’s Richard Strauss Year, so indulge yourself in his music as much as you can, without feeling any guilt whatsoever!