Ending it All in Massenet's 'Werther'

WOO-1228-Werther-300Type the words "music and suicide" into an internet search engine and you'll quickly find any number of theories about the types of music most likely to encourage suicidal tendencies — ranging from country to heavy metal to opera — with the music at times accused of romanticizing suicide.

It may be heavy metal that's most frequently cited as a musical inspiration to end it all. Fans of the genre have even come up with lists of the "best heavy metal suicide songs" — which include tunes such as "Don't Close Your Eyes" by Kix, "Fade to Black" by Metallica and Megadeth's "A Tout le Monde." Yet most of those songs hardly make the prospect of ending one's life seem attractive. Instead, they dwell on the dire emotions that lead to the act -- feelings of emptiness, hopelessness and desperation -- and the songs hardly seem steeped in romance.

In opera, suicidal characters express those same emotions, but they most often arise from a single, root cause: love. Lost love, unfulfilled love, forbidden love. So while many kinds of music have been said to portray suicide as a romantic act, it may be opera in which that tendency is most pronounced -- and there are few better examples than Jules Massenet's Werther.

The opera is based on a 1774 novel by Goethe that was inspired by an actual event: the suicide of a young man who was in love with a married woman. The novel, called The Sorrows of Young Werther, was an early influence on the Romantic literary movement, and its wide popularity made Goethe an international celebrity.

Massenet composed his operatic version of the story in 1887. He hoped it would be premiered by the Opera Comique in Paris, but the company was looking for something more cheerful, so the opera was shelved until its premiere finally took place in 1892 in Vienna, where it was an immediate hit. Before long, Werther had found its way to theaters all across Europe, and its American premiere took place in Chicago just two years later.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Massenet's Werther in an unusual production from the Montreal Opera, starring baritone Phillip Addis. The drama's title role was originally written for a tenor, and it's now regarded as one of the great tenor roles in all of opera. But the famous Italian baritone Mattia Battistini was so taken with the opera that he asked the composer if the role might be re-written for a baritone. Massenet took him up on it, and created a new version of the opera, especially for Battistini, in 1902.

The Montreal production is led by conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni and also features mezzo-soprano Michèle Lozier as Charlotte, with soprano Suzanne Rigden as Sophie.