Jules Massenet(1842 - 1912)
At the age ofnine the French composer Jules Massenet was admitted to the Paris Conservatoryand by the time he was seventeen he had won first prizes for both piano playingand fugue He won the Grand Prix du Rome in 1863 and was appointed Professor of Compositionat the Paris Conservatoire in 1878, where he continued to teach until hisdeath. Massenet was one of many late nineteenth century composers responding tothe revolution that Richard Wagner had created with his "musicdramas" and was referred to at one point as "MademoiselleWagner." But he was no mere copy-cat; in fact, along with Charles Gounod(the composer of Faust), he determined the outline of what truly is theFrench tradition in opera His melodies are graceful and heart-felt, his musichas an innate charm, he is an elegant orchestrator, and his operas -particularlyhis best operas, Manon and Werther - are imbued with a naturalsense of the theatrical. He has been accused of being shallow and merelycreating beautiful music; the composer Vincent d'Indy referred to his"discreet and semi-religious eroticism" which is both appealing and easyto dismiss And indeed, Massenet responded to the accusation by saying "Idon't believe in all that creeping Jesus stuff, but the public likes it and wemust always agree with the public." Massenet's popularity began to waneunder Debussy's growing influence and he was seen as old-fashioned by the timehe died. But in addition to the very popular Manon and Werther,his operas Le Cid, Esclarmonde, Don Quichotte and Herodiade stilloccasionally show up in major opera houses around the world and the"Meditation" from his opera Thais for violin is a great concertfavourite.
Werther, which was first staged in 1892 in Vienna, was not an immediate success, but once it caughton, there was no stopping it. Its first production in Paris was the following year, and it was heard in Milan, New Orleans, Louisiana and New York in 1894. It has been performed over 1300times in Paris alone.
Massenet'spassion for melody infused with tenderness and sensuality found the perfectoutlet in Goethe's romantic novel, formed into a libretto by Edouard Blau, PaulMilliet and George Hartman. The lovelorn, pessimistic, melodramatic poet Wertherand his adored and unavailable-though-truly-concerned Charlotte fit right into Massenet's world-view and arch-romanticism. (Thenovelist Thackeray nastily wrote the following about Charlotte after reading Goethe's novel' Charlotte, havingseen his body/Borne before her on a shutter,/Like a well-conducted person,/Wenton cutting bread and butter) Massenet perfectly captures these characters'emotions in his music without ever becoming more florid than his hero. Wordsare invariably wed to music and the transitions from informal recitative toarioso and, at times, compete aria are absolutely natural. The orchestration isgenerally quite dark as befits its gloom-and-doom-laden subject matter, withlow brass and winds pervasive.
In all, Massenet,as Rodney Milnes eloquently writes in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera,
"wrote nothing greater or more heartfelt than Werther"
The recordingand cast
Now almostseventy years old (it was recorded in March of 1931), this Werther,despite nearly a dozen other recorded versions available, remains the finest. Theorchestra, chorus, soloists and conductor are steeped in the French style andthere is a smoothness of orchestral line which is unique Conductor Elie Cohen findsthe ideal harmony of refinement and fire and the Opera-Comique Orchestra, withits wooden flutes, gut strings and French bassoons rejoice in their ownlyrical, resonant ensemble. There seems not to be a dishonest or unnatural bitof rubato or other effect throughout - the drama is always served withoutexaggeration and Massenet's lyricism, at times airy, at times tortured, is allowedto speak for itself. Ardour and excitement grow organically from the music,there are no sharp edges, just perfectly-drawn feelings. This is Massenet unadulterated,unsweetened and potent.
The singers areideal. Those curious to hear the French language sung perfectly need go nofurther - these are the models against whom all others since have beenmeasured. Tenor Georges Thill as Werther manages to combine a heroic timbrewith a pleading demeanour - no small feat indeed. The voice is luxurious, bigand free, absolutely even from top to bottom. He can ride over the orchestrawith ease and soft phrases are perfectly poised and controlled. He chooses tounderplay Werther's death scene, and what a relief - and how effective - it isto hear this gorgeous music without sobbing and moaning. He refuses to magnifyWerther's already dreadful dilemma and by so doing, makes us empathize with thecharacter. The one imperfect note in the whole recording is his big A sharpnear the close of "Pourquoi me reveiller?" and leaving it as it wassung (it easily could have been re- recorded), rather than detracting from theperformance, lends Thill's performance a genuine feel of the stage This is amonumental, noble portrayal from one of the twentieth century's great tenors.
And oppositeThill, as Charlotte, soprano Ninon Vallin is no less fine.
The role is more often taken by a mezzo-soprano, but Vallin, by understatingmost of the recitatives and keeping her tone warm and poised, never sounds toolight or bright. The voice itself is beautiful and full; her singing is asnatural as speech. Her singular style, hesitant yet pulsing and pressing withfeeling, makes her Charlotte a classic: she is a very proper woman, who, thoughfilled with emotions for Werther, not only sacrifices love for comfort and duty,but hands her husband, Albert, the pistols with which poor Werther is going tocommit suicide, Vallin brilliantly remains involved and aloof at once: her big numbersin the third act begin with great reserve but soon burst wide open. It is aglorious, probing performance, stunningly sung.
The far lesserroles of Sophie and Albert are well taken. The soprano Germaine Feraldy israther mature for Sophie, but her liveliness and glistening tone provide theperfect counterpoint to Charlotte. The equally little-known Marcel Roquesings Albert with just the right combination of warmth and stiffness - perfectfor the character - and also manages to get a sting into his tone when, at theclose of the third act, he more or less orders Charlotte to send Werther theobjects of the latter's own demise. As a whole, then, there is not an unconvincing,uncommitted performance here
Act I: TheBailiff's House
 The opera opens with an initially ominousPrelude. The first act is set in the garden of the Bailiff, Charlotte's widowed father He is sitting on the garden terrace,with his six younger children round him, as he te