If you would like the answers to some fascinating questions about Napoleon, Goethe, Massenet and Goethe's Werther, you must catch one of the three performances of Massenet's "Werther," being given by the Opera Society in the Kennedy Center next Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Jean Perisson will conduct, George London will stage the production, and the title role will be sung, for the first time on any stage, by teh man who is probably best equipped in the entire world of operatic tenors today to sing the part, Nicolai Gedda. His Charlotte will be Joann Grillo, with Georgine Resick as Sophie and Ronal Hedlund as Albert.
Napoleon once told Goethe that he took a copy of the author's novel "The Sorrow of Young Werther" with him during his Egyptian campaign. He studied it, he said, "like a criminal judge reading his documents." Why, for heaven's sake? What was there in this partly autobiographical romance that could so have caught the imagination of young Bonaparte in those years when he was plotting his route to military triumphs and eventual empire?
The answer must be that Napoleon was only one of thousands who were smitten in the same way with the story Goethe fashioned out of a youthful episode that hit him when he was 23. It was in the year 1772 and Goethe fell in love with a pretty young girl, the daughter of a bailiff in the town of Frankfurt. Her name was Charlotte, and she was engaged - and had been for two Years - to a man 12 years her senior named Johann Kestner. The year after Goethe met Charlotte, she married Kestner, and that, as far as Goethe was concerned, was that. But it had also happened in the fall of 1772, just a month or two after the poet met the girl, that a young man named Karl Jerusalem had borrowed a set of pistols from his friend Kestner, and shot himself to death, all for love, or at least infaluation with another man's wife.
After Charlotte Buff, the pretty little thing Goethe had fallen in love with, had married her fiance, the writer in Goethe began to assert itself. The next thing you knew, he had stirred together the various events that had occurred in that little town of Wetzlar, and, putting them together in a single story, created one of his most famous novels, which he soon came to call by its short form, "Werther." Now as you will notice, the story is autobiographical only up to a point: Goethe, once young Charlotte married her Kestner, did not kill himself. But his fictional self did, in the final scene of the novel, as he does in the operatic version that Massenet created a century after the book was written.
For a time the story of young Werther seized so vividly upon the imaginations of young men who read it that young dandies of the time, if they wanted to dress in the height of fashion, wore blue morning coats, yellow vests or waistcoats, and gray trousers, all after young Werther. And the emotional impact of the novel's closing scene was so strong that the Bishop of Berry, a certain Lord Bristol, called on Goethe one day and gave him fits, accusing him of leading people to suicide. The effect of the book was very much like that, over a century and half later, of the popular Budapest song, "Gloomy Sunday," which became so hypnotic in its effect that it was forbidden to play it in public or over the radio because of the suicides it was said to precipitate.
No wonder, then, that Massenet, to whom a love story filled with melting tears, soft pleas for reunions and bittersweet farewells was irresistible, was moved by Goethe's characters and their hopeless situation to create one of his finest operas. His tenor, Werther, and his leading woman, Charlotte - their original names are retained in the opera - are given extended scenes that capture not only the novel's underlying spirit, but that also bring out some of the strongest writing in any Massenet opera. Werther, as any proper Goethean hero must, has, in his first scene, an apostrophe to the silent beauty of nature. One of the finest of all Massenet's leading men, Werther later enjoys two more solo scenes, in the second of which a further famous 18th-century memento is recalled. It occurs when Charlotte recalls the verses from Ossian that Werther had earlier begun to translate for her. The whole Ossianic legend, perpetrated by James Macpherson but not recongnized at that time as a hoax, is skillfully woven into the drama.
While Charlotte and Werther have several extended scenes, her principal dramatic opportunity comes in the Letter Scene at the beginning of the third act. It is Christmas Eve and, as she reads over letters written to her by Werther, Charlotte, now married to Albert, remembers that Wether promised to return at Christmas.Will he keep his promise? And if he does, what will Charlotte do about her feelings which, in his absence, have grown increasingly turbulent? And what, finally, will become of lovelorn, poetic, touching young Werther? See you at the Kennedy Center.