Goethe dashed out The Sorrows of Young Werther in all of six weeks. The novel, which relates, through a series of letters, the hopeless love of a young poet who chooses death to escape his torments, became an immediate best seller, at a stroke both catapulting its author to fame and launching the Werther cult: women perfumed themselves with Eau de Werther, Werther attire was hawked to men, while a noticeable spike in suicides ensued across Germany.
With exquisite sensitivity, Jules Massenet found the musical and dramatic language to transform the German epistolary novel into one of the most heart-wrenching love stories in the operatic literature, which will be conducted by the fantastic Michel Plasson, and staged by János Szikora.
The German city of Wetzlar, ca. 1780
Act I – Le Bailli's house
On a summer day in July the widower Le Bailli – the bailiff – is practising a Christmas carol with his children in the garden of his home. His two friends Johann and Schmidt pop in for a visit to invite their host to the pub later on that day, and also to discuss the evening ball, to which the young Werther will be escorting the bailiff's eldest daughter, Charlotte. As it turns out, Charlotte already has a fiancé – Albert – who has been gone for half a year to arrange his affairs, and no-one knows when he is coming back. The two friends depart, and the bailiff herds his children into the house.
Werther arrives at the house and is enraptured by the sight of the garden and the beauty of nature. From inside the house come the voices of the children and the Christmas carol – Werther is moved as he listens to them. Charlotte appears inside, splendidly dressed for the ball, and serves supper to her younger siblings. Werther secretly watches the scene from outside, and is deeply touched by Charlotte's inner being and the family harmony he has witnessed. The other guests who are also heading to the ball also arrive – including Brühlmann and Käthchen, who are so deeply in love with each other, they are oblivious to everything else. Charlotte puts the little ones in the charge of Sophie, the next- oldest sister, and departs for the ball with Werther. The bailiff, at Sophie's urging, heads off to join his friends at the tavern. After his departure, Albert arrives unexpectedly and asks Sophie about his fiancée. The girl reassures him that Charlotte has not forgotten him, and everyone is preparing for their wedding. Albert leaves happily.
Evening has fallen; in the moonlit garden, Werther accompanies Charlotte home after the ball. Charlotte reminisces about her departed mother and her "children", whom she loves and cares for in her place. Werther cannot contain his emotions and declares his love for the girl in the moonlit garden. The silence is broken by the sound of the bailiff calling for Charlotte: Albert has come home. Charlotte confesses to Werther that she swore to her mother on her deathbed that she would marry Albert. The young man can hardly hold back his tears, but he asks Charlotte to keep the promise she made to her mother. The girl goes into the house, and Werther, bereft of hope, remains standing alone in the garden.
Act II – The Lindens
Wetzlar's main square on a Sunday, the day of the minister's 50th wedding anniversary. Johann and Schmidt are drinking beer outside the pub and watching the people on their way to the church service. Among them are Charlotte and Albert, who have now been married for three months. They look like an idyllic couple as they make their way to the church. Werther appears and watches Charlotte and her husband in agony: he is not able to get over the fact that the gates of heaven have been shut before him. Broken, he collapses onto a bench. Schmidt and Johann come out of the pub consoling Brühlmann, who after a seven-year engagement has been abandoned by his beloved Kätchen.
Albert addresses Werther: in a spirit of friendship, he reveals that he knows how he felt toward Charlotte and that he understands his suffering and is not angry at him because of it. Werther conceals his true emotions, and assures Albert that he is over the suffering and only feels friendship in his heart. Sophie merrily runs up to them, trying to cheer up the gloomy Werther and let him know that she will be counting on him to dance the minuet with her at the celebration. After she rushes into the rectory, Albert gently tries to point out to Werther that sometimes happiness is just within arm's reach: perhaps he might find it with Sophie... Werther remains alone, feeling ashamed for having lied to Albert; he knows that he should leave the town, but upon glimpsing Charlotte as she steps out of the church he feels incapable of being far away from her.
He addresses the young woman and recalls the evening when they met. Charlotte asks him to take a journey lasting until Christmas. Werther is left alone; he realizes that his beloved is right: he needs to leave – or else he must die. Sophie runs out of the rectory to call Werther to the celebration, but the young man tells her he is going away forever, and races off. The revellers flock to the square, with Charlotte and Albert among them. In tears, Sophie tells them what has happened. Albert realizes that Werther still loves his wife. The crowd merrily celebrates the golden anniversary on the square.
Act III – Charlotte and Werther
Albert's house on Christmas Eve. Charlotte is despondent and sad: she has had to recognise what an important place Werther occupies in her heart. She reads over the young man's letters over and over again, and the last message fills her with horror: "You said, 'at Christmas', and I cried: 'Never!' Now let's see which of us will be right. But if I do not appear on the day that was discussed, do not blame me. Instead mourn me..." Sophie comes into the house and tries her best to cheer her sister, but Charlotte is no longer able to hide her tears. Sophie makes her sister promise that she'll come over to visit that night, and then departs. Charlotte starts to pray when suddenly a pale Werther appears at the door. Nothing has changed in the house since he's been gone, including the poems by Ossian that he had started to translate, and which have been waiting for him. Werther sadly quotes from one of the gloomy verses, which is about death. Charlotte is not able to hide her anguish, which Werther interprets as a confession of love. Overcome with joy, he kisses Charlotte. The young woman comes to her senses, ejects Werther from the house and locks herself up in her room. Werther makes up his mind to die and runs off.
Albert arrives home, in a grim frame of mind after learning about Werther's return. He calls for his wife; Charlotte comes out of her room and is unable to hide her despair. The maid brings a letter from Werther: "I am going on a long journey... Would you loan me your pistols?" Albert dismisses his wife in order to send the weapon to the man. The maid departs with the pistol case, and Albert goes to his room in a rage. Charlotte races off to rescue Werther.
Act IV – Werther's death
Charlotte enters Werther's study to find the mortally wounded young man lying on the ground. She desperately asks his forgiveness; Werther replies: "My soul blesses you for this death, which spares you from shame and me from remorse." Werther does not allow her to call for help: wishing to be alone with her for the last time. Charlotte kisses her beloved. In the distance, children's voices are heard joyfully singing the Christmas carol. Transfigured, Werther listens to the song. His final request is to be buried beneath the two great linden trees in the cemetery. Charlotte gazes at her dead beloved in shock, and then faints.