A century later, the French composer Jules Massenet chose it as a theme for an opera which at first was too sombre for Parisian tastes but later became a great success. Around the same time, William Thackeray turned the story into a very funny satirical poem beginning with the lines: “Werther had a love for Charlotte/Such as words could never utter. Would you know when first he met her? She was cutting bread and butter.”
Unfortunately, Charlotte had promised her mother on her death bed that she would marry Albert, who was a thoroughly decent fellow, if a bit short on passion. Werther took this very badly and suffered terrible anguish before he finally shot himself. Or, as Thackeray put it:
So he sigh’d and pin’d and ogled,
And his passion boil’d and bubbled,
Till he blew his silly brains out,
And no more was by it troubled.
The opera, naturally enough, takes it all rather more seriously and the music grows in power as Werther’s troubles become ever more intense.
The current Royal Opera House production, elegantly directed by Benoit Jacquot, was first seen in 2004 and has this time secured the services not only of great singers for the main roles, but also the conductor Edward Gardner who succeeds in bringing out the best in Massenet’s gloriously romantic music.
The title role is sung by the great Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez, who seemed to start slowly but grew in power, in both his voice and his acting, as the story developed and Werther’s fate become inevitable. His third act aria “Pourquoi me reveiller” (Why should I wake up?) is the climax of the opera and on this occasion Florez’s magnificent delivery earned a well deserved cry of ‘bravo!’ and massive applause from the audience. Edward Gardner maintained a perfect balance between orchestra and singer throughout as this aria grew in emotional intensity.
The American soprano Isabel Leonard was perfect as Charlotte, while South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo was fittingly staid and unemotional as Albert. I particularly enjoyed the scene in which he approaches Werther on seeing his distress and displays his priggishness by saying in effect that he knows Werther loves Charlotte, but she and Albert are now married, so Werther should pull himself together. Then he offers Werther a handshake in friendship, which Werther understandably ignores.
Finally I must mention American soprano Heather Engebretson, who played the role of Charlotte’s little sister Sophie quite beautifully. The singer is 29 years old, but looked about 15 and both sang and acted the part with impressively youthful vitality adding great liveliness to a sombre story. If Werther had had any sense, he would surely have given up on Charlotte and waited for this little sister to grow up.
Tickets: 020 7304 4000 or roh.org.uk (until October 5).
This production will be broadcast by Radio 3 on Saturday 30 November starting at 6.30pm.
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