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JULES MASSENET (1842-1912)

Letter Scene and Va! Laisse couler mes larmes from Werther

April 23, 2017: Isabel Leonard, mezzo-soprano; Warren Jones, piano

At least as early as 1880 Massenet was considering writing an opera based on Goethe’s epistolary novel Werther (1774), whose protagonist commits suicide over unrequited love. Goethe’s tragic hero became one of the chief symbols of the Romantic movement in Europe. In Massenet’s factually challenged memoirs he was purposefully vague about the timing of the genesis of his opera saying it had stemmed from when dramatist Georges Hartmann handed him a copy of Werther in Wetzlar on their way back from a performance of Parsifal in Bayreuth. As Masssenet sat reading, he recounted, in a German beer hall in the town where Goethe’s story takes place, he was moved to tears, particularly by the Ossian quote “Pourquois me réveiller” (Why awaken me), which Werther would sing in one of the opera’s dramatic peaks.

Scholars have determined that Massenet’s vagueness would lead readers to assume he was talking about the summer of 1882, and that he put aside the idea for his operas Manon and Le Cid, but other details confirm that this Parsifal journey must have occurred in 1886. In truth Massenet began composing Werther in 1885, based on a scenario by Hartmann but actually setting a libretto by Édouard Blau and Paul Millet, so the Wetzlar occasion would have simply spurred him on. Though Hartmann had not actually written part of the libretto, the composer no doubt gave him nominal credit to aid him financially when his bankrupt publishing firm was being absorbed by another.

Massenet completed the opera in 1887, but Léon Carvalho, director of the Opéra-Comique, turned it down as too depressing. The theater burned down shortly thereafter, and, though there was a possibility of a premiere in 1889, Massenet’s next opera, Esclarmonde, was performed instead. As it turns out, the premiere took place on February 16, 1892, sung in German, at the Vienna Hofoper—the result of the management requesting another opera from Massenet after the great success of his Manon there in 1890. Somewhat surprisingly, the soprano who had sung the role of Manon in Vienna now took on the mezzo-soprano role of Charlottte, a performance fondly remembered there for decades. The Parisian premiere in 1893 met with only modest success, and it took until the 1903 revival by Albert Carré for Werther to achieve popular status and acclaim as one of Massenet’s greatest masterpieces.

The story concerns Charlotte, whose care for her siblings after her mother’s death arouses the sympathy and love of Werther, even though he knows she is set to marry the absent Albert. Charlotte and Werther attend a ball and become entranced with each other, but the spell is shattered when they return to her house and hear that Albert has returned. Time passes, and Charlotte and Albert have been married for three years when the depressed Werther can’t help show his feelings for her. Charlotte says he must really go away until Christmas. Despairing, he contemplates suicide and leaves.

On Christmas Eve, Charlotte rereads all the letters that Werther has sent to her, admitting that she really loves him. The desolate Werther appears suddenly and they reminisce tenderly, but she flees. Albert reads a letter from Werther saying he is going away and wants to borrow his pistols. Albert makes the agitated Charlotte bring them as she fully realizes Werther’s intention. She runs to Werther’s rooms, where he lies mortally wounded. He is happy to be united with her, and she admits she has always loved him before he dies in her arms.

Massenet made certain changes in Goethe’s story, such as Charlotte’s marriage to Albert being the result of her dying mother’s wish rather than her own choice, having Albert know why Werther wanted to borrow his pistols, and having Werther actually conscious for a final duet with Charlotte. Nevertheless the story proved relatively unproblematic to adapt for the operatic stage, and provided Massenet with a perfect vehicle to show the full force of his ability to write inspired, fluid melodies as well as shrewd psychological character development.

The Letter Scene (“Air des lettres”), in which Charlotte reads from letters that Werther has sent her, specifically connects with Goethe’s original story, which he tells in the form of letters. The music’s psychological drama draws from the fact that we experience both the emotions that Werther transmitted in writing the letters as well as Charlotte’s reaction to them. With incredible dramatic pacing, Massenet follows this (after an exchange in which Charlotte’s sister Sophie tries to cheer her up) with the remarkable “Air des larmes” (Aria of tears), in which Massenet famously uses a saxophone obbligato—nicely imagined here on piano—to aid in the aria’s mournful expressiveness.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

Texts and Translations

Scène des lettres (Air des lettres)

Werther! Werther!
Qui m’aurait dit la place
que dans mon coeur il occupe aujourd’hui?
Depuis qu’il est parti,
malgré moi tout me lasse!
Et mon âme est pleine de lui!
Ces lettres! . . .
Ah! je les relis sans cesse . . .
Avec quel charme, mais aussi quelle tristesse!
Je devrais les détruire . . . je ne puis!

«Je vous écris
de ma petite chambre;
un ciel gris
et lourd de Décembre
pèse sur moi comme un linceul,
et je suis seul! seul! toujours seul!»

Ah! personne près de lui! . . .
Pas un seul témoignage de tendresse
ou même de pitié!
Dieu! Comment m’est venu
ce triste courage,
d’ordonner cet exil et cet isolement?

«Des cris joyeux d’enfants
montent sous ma fenêtre.
Et je pense à ce temps si doux
où tous vos chers petits
jouaient autour de nous!
Ils m’oublieront peut-être?»

Non, Werther, dans leur souvenir
votre image reste vivante,
et quand vous reviendrez . . .
Mais doit-il revenir?

Ah! ce dernier billet me glace et m’épouvante!

«Tu m’as dit: à Noël, et j’ai crié: Jamais!
On va bientôt connaître
qui de nous deux disait vrai!
Mais si je ne dois reparaître,
au jour fixé, devant toi,
ne m’accuse pas, pleure-moi!
Oui, de ces yeux si pleins de charmes,
ces lignes, tu les reliras,
tu les mouilleras de tes larmes,
O Charlotte, et tu frémiras!»

Va! Laisse couler mes larmes

Va! laisse couler mes larmes . . .
elles font du bien, ma chérie!
Les larmes qu’on ne pleure pas,
dans notre âme retombent toutes,
et de leurs patientes gouttes
Martèlent le coeur triste et las!
Sa résistance enfin s’épuise;
le coeur se creuse et s’affaiblit:
il est trop grand, rien ne l’emplit;
et trop fragile, tout le brise!

Letter Scene (Letter aria)

Werther! Werther!
Who would have told me the place
that he occupies in my heart today?
Since he has gone, in spite of myself,
I’ve been all weary!
And my soul is filled with him!
These letters! . . .
Ah! I read them constantly . . .
With what charm, but also what sadness!
I should destroy them. . . I cannot!

“I am writing to you
from my little room;
a sky gray
and heavy of December
weighs upon me like a shroud,
and I am alone! Alone! Always alone!”

Ah! No one near him! . . .
Not a single testimony of tenderness
or even pity!
God! How did this
this sad courage come to me,
to order this exile and isolation?

“Joyful cries of children
rise from beneath my window.
And I think of the time so sweet
when all your dear little ones
were playing around us!
They will forget me, perhaps?”

No, Werther, in their memory
your image remains alive,
and when you return . . .
But will he return?

Ah! This last note freezes and terrifies me!

“You said to me: Christmas, and I cried: Never!
We will soon know
which of us was speaking the truth!
But if I do not reappear,
on the appointed day, before you,
do not accuse me, weep for me!
Yes, with those eyes so full of charms,
these lines, you will reread them,
and you will wet them with your tears,
O Charlotte, and you will tremble!”

Go! Let my tears flow

Go! Let my tears flow . . .
They do me good, my dear!
The tears that we don’t cry
all fall back into our soul,
and their patient drops
hammer on the sad and weary heart.
Its resistance is finally exhausted;
the heart grows hollow and weakens:
it is too great, nothing fills it;
and too fragile, everything will break it!

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