Page to Opera Stage: Spiralling Towards the Abyss in Goethe’s & Massenet’s ‘Werther’By Carmen Paddock
“Page to Opera Stage” looks at stories – real-life or fiction, old and new – that have inspired operas, and the ways these narratives have been edited and dramatized to fit a new medium. This month, we return to Goethe, this time with Jules Massenet’s poignant adaptation of his name-making novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther”
The following contains discussion of suicide.
When Johann Wolfgang von Goethe spent six weeks in early 1774 feverishly writing a short, semi-biographical novel in letters, it is unlikely he was aware how drastically it would change his life. With “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” the 24-year-old became a literary celebrity overnight. Pirated copies and unauthorized translations of his doomed romance spread like wildfire – faster than any church and state censure could stop it. “The Sorrows of Young Werther” was arguably the first modern literary phenomenon, bringing its author almost instant fame (though little wealth, due to poor copyright laws) and a healthy dose of notoriety. It started a trend for epistolary novels, blue jackets with yellow waistcoats, and a handful of (possibly apocryphal) copycat suicides.
“The Sorrows of Young Werther” follows its protagonist through letters to his friend Wilhelm. He moves to Walheim (Goethe’s fictional name for Wetzlar), befriends its inhabitants, and meets the bailiff’s eldest daughter Charlotte. She is already engaged to Albert when they meet, but love at first sight ensues. Werther tries to separate himself from Charlotte, but a foray from Walheim proves brief and even Charlotte’s insistence that he stay away for the weeks before Christmas is brief. Already prone to melancholy and fits of passion, Werther sees no option for himself but suicide. After a final Christmas Eve meeting with Charlotte, he gives the pretext of a journey to gain Albert’s pistols and kills himself.
Through some modern lenses, Goethe’s novel is irresponsibly biographical and deals questionably with mental health. He based the central love triangle on his own crush on Charlotte Buff, who married his friend Johann Christian Kestner. In reality, this relationship was quite healthy and amiable, with Goethe recovering from any disappointment swiftly and maintaining a close friendship with the couple. Werther’s social class and unhappy end also bear uncanny similarity to that of Goethe’s university acquaintance Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem. This similarly was noted by Jerusalem’s acquaintances and family and not appreciated.
While “The Sorrows of Young Werther” was written over a century before psychology was addressed as its own science, it paints a breath-taking picture of one struggling to cope with his world. While some find Werther’s self-pitying, the picture is one of all-consuming despair – perhaps depression, perhaps something else quantifiable in the 21st century – without the language to capture and understand it. It remains powerful, almost overwhelmingly evocative, to this day.
He values my understanding and talents more highly than my heart, but I am proud of the latter only. It is the sole source of everything of our strength, happiness, and misery. All the knowledge I possess everyone else can acquire, but my heart is exclusively my own.
Jules Massenet was hardly the first to adapt an opera from Goethe’s novel, but his 1892 adaptation with a libretto by Édouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hartmann (as Henri Grémont) is the only to gain a lasting place in the canon. While Massenet often edited his operas to fit the demands of his current theatre, he was remarkably steady with his design for “Werther.” When the Opera-Comique in Paris turned down the finished score in 1887 for its gloomy subject matter, he held onto the unchanged piece until the Vienna Hofoper – looking for something to follow the success of “Manon” – asked if Massenet had anything ready. His insistence on his vision paid off, and “Werther” remains one of Massenet’s most beloved and dramatically solid works.
Many of the libretto’s introspective passages are taken directly from Goethe via translation; the Act two aria beginning “Lorsque l’enfant revient d’un voyage avant l’heure” comes from the 30th November 1772 diary entry.
Father, whom I know not,—who wert once wont to fill my soul, but who now hidest thy face from me,—call me back to thee; be silent no longer; thy silence shall not delay a soul which thirsts after thee. What man, what father, could be angry with a son for returning to him suddenly, for falling on his neck, and exclaiming, “I am here again, my father! forgive me if I have anticipated my journey, and returned before the appointed time! […]” And wouldst thou, heavenly Father, banish such a child from thy presence?
Massenet’s remarkably condensed plot itself sees many notable and necessary plot differences: less commentary on social class, fewer subplots and secondary characters, the absence of Wilhelm, and radically altered timelines (the romance is roughly 18 months in the novel and six in the opera). Going over each of them, beat by beat, would be fruitless. But four significant instances change the character of the opera, keeping its spirit aligned with the book while emphasizing a more redemptive reading.
Three’s a crowd
Albert is far more prominent in the novel than in the opera. Like Kestner in Goethe’s life, Albert becomes a companion to Werther outside of his attachment to his fiancée, then wife. The trio coexist smoothly for most of the novel, with Werther’s deteriorating mental state not affecting his affection for either party. Even when Werther and Albert clash (two notable events outlined later on), amiability only gives way when Albert realises Werther is still madly in love with Charlotte. As he removes himself from Werther’s company – and even distances himself from his wife – the lost (anti)hero’s isolation becomes more pronounced.
Massenet maintains Albert’s good nature and (relative) lack of jealousy, but the unlucky husband only interacts with Werther once in Act two. It is a brief exchange as Albert asks Werther if he feels any attachment to Charlotte, who he met when she was “free” (crucially, Massenet’s team makes Werther unaware of Charlotte’s engagement when they meet, unlike Goethe). Werther assures Albert that he could choose to move away if such feelings existed – a blatant lie, and it takes Charlotte forbidding his visit “until Christmas” to force a separation (it is, of course, Werther who drives the first separation in the novel and Albert who suggests Charlotte enforce the second).
Crimes of passion
A notable subplot in the second half of the novel involves Werther’s acquaintance with a peasant man driven to distraction by love – or the desire of possession – of his former mistress. When the lady, a widow, hires a new servant, the dismissed murders them both. Werther, feeling sympathy for this desperation, takes his side arguing before a disturbed Albert, but the guilty man is convicted by his own admission.
This short sequence illuminates Werther’s own psyche, providing an alternative look at a love triangle that comes to tragic ends. His sympathy is alarming but natural, spilled from his similar predicament. It also highlights Werther’s fundamental inability to think of injuring others, turning violence on himself rather than destroy Charlotte or Albert.
Massenet omits this section, choosing to focus solely on the central love triangle. By doing so, he shifts Werther’s focus more towards the spiritual and emphasizes Charlotte’s experience, as will be explored.
“Of Charlotte’s grief”
Werther’s beloved occupies an interesting place in the novel; while not without agency, the first person perspective of the letters leaves readers out of her heart and mind until the narration breaks into third person (a fictional “editor” compiling Werther’s letters and filling the gaps in his final days). Massenet may not bring Charlotte to the fore at an earlier place than the novel does, but at an earlier place in his operatic narrative.
The second half of the opera (Acts three and four) is the fateful Christmas Eve, and Charlotte immediately fills the Wilhelm role, having received numerous missives from Werther during their separation. She gives voice to her own torment and confusion at her feelings and their separation and is only offstage for a brief break during the entire second half. In a sense she becomes the new narrator, Werther already lost to his demons and despair.
Crucially, Charlotte tries – too late – to stop Werther’s suicide. Act four begins as she arrives to find Werther already mortally wounded. And here, she is able for the first time in either text to voice her feelings, pouring out her regret at having placed her sense of duty above her heart and thus losing Werther forever.
Oui… du jour même où tu parus devant mes yeux… j’ai senti qu’une chaîne impossible à brises, nous liait tous les deux!
Massenet’s final act easily ranks among opera’s most tragic endings, with two kindred souls finding their love impossible in this world. Perhaps there is hope in the next.
The unknown and unknowable
Suicide is discussed earlier and more openly in Goethe’s narration than in Massenet’s. Werther first brings up suicidality in his 16th July 1771 letter, almost a year and a half before ending his life. It is a casual mention, but a 12th August 1771 letter details a longer conversation (one Goethe likely adapted from Jerusalem’s writings on suicide prior to taking his own life).
“This is another of your extravagant humours,” said Albert: “[…] in this matter you are undoubtedly wrong; for we were speaking of suicide, which you compare with great actions, when it is impossible to regard it as anything but a weakness. It is much easier to die than to bear a life of misery with fortitude.”
“Human nature,” I continued, “has its limits. It is able to endure a certain degree of joy, sorrow, and pain, but becomes annihilated as soon as this measure is exceeded. The question, therefore, is not whether a man is strong or weak, but whether he is able to endure the measure of his sufferings. The suffering may be moral or physical; and in my opinion it is just as absurd to call a man a coward who destroys himself, as to call a man a coward who dies of a malignant fever.”
While timelines compress in “Werther,” Massenet does not mention his protagonist’s suicidal ideation until the “Lorsque l’enfant” aria lifted faithfully from Goethe. It is necessary operatic compression, but it also keeps other characters in the dark about his deteriorating mental state (though Charlotte guesses from his letters). Massenet then adds a mention of Albert’s pistols during Werther’s Christmas Eve visit to Charlotte, making the desperate man’s intentions and fantasies horrifyingly clear.
While Goethe and Massenet wrote over a century apart, suicide was widely criminalized during both times. This profoundly unsympathetic legislation is thankfully out of date today: a greater understanding of and compassion for mental health struggles dominate. Goethe and Massenet, in their unique ways, pushed a progressive and tolerant view, creating a sympathetic character whose demise feels preventable, and all the more tragic for it.
A general decrease in the prominence of the church and an increase in understanding of mental health are partially responsible for increased societal kindness towards suicides and suicide attempts. Goethe’s and Massenet’s Werther express a view of God’s mercy at odds with common ecclesiastical readings of their day. “The Sorrows of Young Werther” was written as the Enlightenment wound towards Romanticism. Werther, and the novel itself, does not do away with the concept of God but finds no reassurance or proof of existence from the divine. His faith is emphasized from early supplications to nature (“Oh, would I could […] impress upon paper all that is living so full and warm within me, that it might be the mirror of my soul, as my soul is the mirror of the infinite God!”) to his final letter to Charlotte:
I go before you. I go to my Father and to your Father. I will pour out my sorrows before him, and he will give me comfort till you arrive. Then will I fly to meet you. I will claim you, and remain your eternal embrace, in the presence of the Almighty.
He has faith that God will not condemn his self-inflicted end, but of course Goethe cannot provide a comment from the other side. It is only noted that no priest attended his burial.
Writing as Romanticism moved towards Modernism, Massenet does not presume to speak for a higher power or confirm its (non)existence. But as Werther dies, the voice of Charlotte’s siblings singing Christmas carols wafts through his window, with Sophie singing “Dieu permet d’être heureux (God allows us happiness).” Perhaps, as noted in a libretto stage direction, Werther is hallucinating; perhaps it is a macabre coincidence of life carrying on regardless of Charlotte’s great loss; perhaps a divine sign that he is not abandoned and will not be thrown out into the night.
When compared to its source text, “Werther” is perhaps an easier story to love. By removing itself slightly from the protagonist’s increasing mental distress, which can read – perhaps uncharitably, perhaps accurately – as overwrought, it gives voice to others in Werther’s life and the mutual passion that binds Charlotte to him to the bitter end. But both remain memorable, moving works capturing the deepest human emotions and an all-too-human tragedy.
A wide range of English-language translations of “The Sorrows of Young Werther” exist, of varying quality; all quotations in this piece come from the archaic but highly faithful R. Dillon Boylan translation available at Project Gutenberg. Blau, Milliet, and Hartmann’s libretto for Massenet’s “Werther” can be found online in French.