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Theatre / Werther

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The poster for the premier of the opera in 1893

Werther is an opera in four acts composed by Jules Massenet, set to a French libretto by Édouard Blau, Paul Milliet, and Georges Hartmann, and adapted from The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Set in Wetzlar within the period from July to December around 1780, the story tells of Werther, a young poet, who falls hopelessly in love with Charlotte, the eldest daughter of a widowed bailiff with young children. However, much to his despair, Charlotte has already promised her deceased mother that she would marry Albert, the perfect suitor for her. Not only does Charlotte renounce her attraction, but she pleads with Werther to leave, but promises to meet him on Christmas. This sends Werther into a spiral of despair, until he sees no other outcome for the separation but death, and thus shoots himself with Albert's pistol on Christmas Eve. Charlotte arrives too late to save him, and can only hold a mortally-wounded Werther as he dies in her arms, now at peace after she finally confesses her love to him.


Massenet's opera first premiered on February 16th, 1892 at the Hofoper (now the Vienna State Opera) in Vienna, but as a German version. The French-language premiere followed in December of the same year at Geneva, and the first performance in France was given by the Opéra-Comique in Paris in January 1893. Today, the opera has been regularly performed and has been recorded many times as well. And while the title role was originally written for a tenor, it is very occasionally performed by a baritone from time to time.


This work contains examples of:

  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: The novel ends with Werther being buried under a lime tree, and with neither Albert or Charlotte attending the funeral. The opera ends with Werther dying in Charlotte’s arms while children outside sing a Christmas carol.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The opera focuses on Werther and Charlotte’s tragic story, omitting several other parts of the novel.
  • Almost Dead Guy: Despite having shot himself, Werther manages to stay alive long enough to be consoled by Charlotte confessing her love for him, and to ask her for forgiveness.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Charlotte declares her love for Werther before he dies from his gunshot wound.
  • Arranged Marriage: Charlotte has promised to marry Albert as a promise to her deceased mother, thus kicking off his spiral into despair.
  • Byronic Hero: Werther has shades of this, though he’s more romantic than the usual character of this type.
  • Consolation Backfire: Sophie's attempts to understand Werther backfire, and she ends up in tears after Werther lashes out at her.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Werther crosses this in Act III.
  • Did I Mention It's Christmas?: Christmas is a prominent motif throughout the whole opera. In Act I, the widowed Bailiff is teaching his six youngest children a Christmas Carol. In Act II, Charlotte agrees to receive Werther on Christmas Day. Act III takes place during Christmas Eve, and in Act IV, Werther dies while children sing the Christmas carol outside.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Just like the novel, Werther doesn’t win over Charlotte.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: At the very end, Werther dies in Charlotte's arms.
  • Downer Ending: Considering the source material, this is no surprise at all.
  • Driven to Suicide: Just like in the novel, only this time, Charlotte comes to be at Werther’s side while he dies.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Averted with Albert, a baritone role. He’s one of the nicest characters in the opera, and truly cares about Charlotte and Sophie.
  • Grief Song: "Pourquoi me réveiller", Werther's Act III aria, has shades of this.
  • The Ingenue: Sophie, Charlotte's younger sister, is definitely this.
  • Love Hurts: Oh, so much for Werther.
  • Love Makes You Crazy: Essentially what briefly happens to Werther in Act III, when he becomes more unhinged and tries to force a kiss on Charlotte.
  • Massive Numbered Siblings: Charlotte is the oldest of seven siblings: Sophie, Fritz, Max, Hans, Karl, Gretel, and Clara.
  • Onee-sama: Charlotte tends to be portrayed as such in many productions.
  • The Promise: In Act II, Charlotte promises Werther that she will see him on Christmas.
  • Promotion to Parent: After their mother's death, Charlotte became the parental figure for her younger siblings.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: The passionate Werther is the Red to the calm and rational Albert's Blue.
  • Smitten Teenage Girl: Sophie can be portrayed as having a crush on Werther, which is understandable, considering that she’s supposed to be fifteen-years-old.
  • Snow Means Death: Werther commits suicide on Christmas Eve, typically a snowy day, especially in a country like Germany.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Werther dies while children sing a Christmas carol outside.
  • Tenor Boy: Werther, without a doubt. Young, a romantic, and a poet, he’s right up there with Vladimir Lensky.


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