Arts & Entertainment, Theatre

In Goethe-inspired opera, a fatal attraction

Opera of Montreal

Shortly after the curtain rises on Opera of Montreal’s production of Werther, a young boy wheels a bicycle across the stage, laughing and carousing with his friends. The bicycle remains onstage through the first act, occasionally pedaled by the boy but mostly left in a corner, untouched and overturned. Along comes Werther, the melancholic protagonist, just in from the fields, walking as if in a daze and singing of his love for nature. He leans in to smell a bouquet of flowers on the kitchen table. He admires the sound of the children, now off-stage, singing Christmas carols in July. Almost absent-mindedly, he approaches the bicycle and spins the back wheel, watching it turn round and round.            One cannot help but wonder what the Opera of Montreal means with this bicycle. Werther, a French opera written in 1887 by Jules Massenet, is based on a 1774 novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Bikes were not yet invented in the era of the writer and not yet popular in that of the composer; one wonders, then, about the meaning of this innovation and what it tells us about the timeless Werther story.

In Geothe’s novel, Werther, a prototypically sensitive and passionate young poet, meets and falls helplessly in love with Charlotte, who is engaged to Albert. The wedding throws Werther into a fierce, suicidal depression. When he realizes Charlotte will never leave Albert, he borrows the latter’s pistols and shoots himself in the stomach. Charlotte rushes to the scene and holds Werther while he dies.

The opera based on this story could quite possibly have been based not on the novel at all but rather on a summary of the same brevity as the one above. It covers the rough plot outline but doesn’t even attempt to depict the more interesting aspects of Goethe’s novel. It eschews the epistolary form of the novel (letters from Werther to his friend Wilhelm) for a more direct dramatic approach, and the audience loses the relatively unmediated access that the letters give us to the state of the protagonist’s mind.

Werther as a musical composition, however, provides an additional outlet for expression that gives the story a direct emotional appeal.  Although originally written for a tenor, Massenet reworked the composition in 1902 to accommodate a baritone he wanted to sing the part of Werther. Opera of Montreal chose to produce this rarer version, believing correctly that the baritone (Phillip Addis) would enrich the depth of Werther’s passion and fall.

A review of a 1986 performance of Werther by the New York City Opera, stated, “The only way to approach Werther is to assume that the 20th century never happened. There is almost no way that the psychological, religious, and social dilemmas that faced Goethe’s sorrowful young hero in the 18th century can be translated into modern terms.” Globalization, for instance, among other social and cultural changes, has often been described as destroying our sense of living within horizons: we recognize those horizons as arbitrary and therefore as meaningless. We couldn’t possibly experience or empathize with Werther’s rhapsodic views about Charlotte and the world.

The bicycle, then, as emblematic of the Opera’s decision to situate the story of Werther in the 20th century (called “gratuitous” by the Gazette), can be seen as a response to the suggestion that we moderns are incapable of either appreciating or replicating such commitments. The children ride bicycles, the women wear flapper-like dresses, Charlotte uses a telephone to call for help after Werther’s suicide: all these remind the audience that what Werther suffered through were not merely pre-modern histrionics but rather quintessentially human experiences.

Pessimists though we often are, we too create horizons for ourselves, various sublime boundaries within which we have no choice but to live our everyday lives. Werther, captivated by the spinning wheel of the bicycle, is no different than one of us, stopping at the corner of Pine and Park and admiring the snowy cliffs of Mount Royal. When Werther sings to Charlotte, “These eyes, my horizon, these sweet eyes,” we know what he’s talking about. The poetry stirs us because we intuitively know what it means.

Werther is playing at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Arts Jan. 26, 29, 31, and Feb. 3. For more information, visit operademontreal.com.

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