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Opera Daily 🎶 — Massenet's Werther
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This week is all about Werther.
We will keep the Christmas theme going this week and listen to Massenet’s four act French opera, Werther. Even though the opera begins in the summer, Christmas is a big part of the story and setting. Act 1 takes place in July, Act 2 in September, and then Act 3 and 4 on Christmas Eve. The opera opens with some children singing a Christmas carol (which is odd given it is the summer). However, when you hear the children at the end of the opera (now Christmas) singing the same carol, it’s clear that Massenet used it as a framing device for the emotional state of all.
Werther’s “Pourquoi me réveiller” (“Why do you awaken me”) is probably one of the most well-known aria’s from this opera. We touched on Werther this summer and mentioned that this piece deserved its own moment, and that moment is now here!
Massenet's Werther takes place in Wetzlar, Germany, in the early 1780s and is adapted from the novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Werther is a young (a bit arrogant, self-involved) poet who, crushed by Charlotte's rejection, takes his own life. Werther loves Charlotte, but she promised her mother on her deathbed that she would marry Albert. After the marriage Charlotte suggests that Werther should travel – but not forget her. Charlotte, unhappily married, has fallen in love with Werther through his letters. He returns unexpectedly (when the aria we are listening to here begin); Charlotte sends him away. Werther then kills himself and dies in Charlotte’s arms.
Today we’re listening to German tenor Jonas Kaufmann sing “Pourquoi me réveiller” from the French opera Werther by Jules Massenet.
What is Werther feeling as he is singing this aria?
Despair and sadness. Charlotte asks Werther to read part of a letter where he translated a piece of writing from one of his favorite poets. The part he reads is where the poet is foreseeing his death (yup, what you are thinking is going to happen…)
Why do you wake me now, o sweetest breath of spring?
On my brow I sense your most gentle caresses, yet how soon creeps on the time
filled with tempests and with distresses!
Tomorrow through the vale, the traveller will pass, recalling all the glory of the past.
And in vain he will search for the bloom of my youth,
and nothing will he find but deep and endless sorrow."
Alas! Why do you wake me now, o sweetest breath of spring!
🎧 Listen here (3 minute listen):
The YouTube link is from Kaufmann’s 2010 title role performance at the Opéra Bastille with Sophie Koch singing the role of Charlotte. I find his singing here just perfect. The first phrase is so simple but so moving. So many emotions were revealed in just a short aria.
🗣 What did you think? Please tell us in the comments!
You can listen to the Belgian (Wagnerian) tenor Ernest Van Dyck, the first Werther, singing the aria “Pourquoi me réveiller” here.
It’s written that Charlotte in the opera is based on the real life crush of Goethe, Charlotte Buff. The movie Young Goethe In Love (Germany, 2010) is about Goethe when he meets Charlotte Buff who is already engaged to be married to someone else.
Thank you again for listening, and Happy New Year to you.
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