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The Story of 'Werther'

Composer Jules Massenet finished <em>Werther</em> in 1887, but it wasn't premiered until 1892, in Vienna.
/ Getty Images
Getty Images
Composer Jules Massenet finished Werther in 1887, but it wasn't premiered until 1892, in Vienna.

Act One: The setting is a small, German town. The first act takes place in July, at the home of the town's bailiff, or mayor. He is a widower, left with two daughters — 20-year-old Charlotte and 15-year-old Sophie. There are also several younger children, whom Charlotte cares for. As the act opens, the bailiff is teaching his children a Christmas carol in the garden of their house. Two neighbors, Schmidt and Johann, watch their progress with amusement. They ask after Charlotte, who's engaged to a man named Albert. The bailiff tells them Albert is away, and Charlotte will be escorted to the local ball that night by a visitor — a young poet named Werther.

As the bailiff goes into the house, Werther arrives for his date with Charlotte, and it's apparent that he is a very romantic young man. He rhapsodizes on the beauty of the evening, and watches intently as Charlotte cuts bread for the children's supper. When she and Werther have left for the ball, and the bailiff has gone to join his friends at the tavern, Albert returns unexpectedly. Disappointed at not finding Charlotte, he tells Sophie that he'll call again in the morning.

As the moon rises, Werther and Charlotte return. He has fallen in love with her, but his declaration is cut short when the bailiff passes by, saying that Albert is back in town. Werther can't hide his disappointment, but he takes the high road, and urges Charlotte to keep her promise to marry Albert.

Act Two: Charlotte and Albert, now married, walk contentedly across the town square on their way to church, followed by a sullen Werther. Albert and Sophie try to cheer Werther up, but he starts talking wistfully about the first time he met Charlotte.

Hearing this, Charlotte tells him it would be best for everyone if he left town. But, to strangely ominous music, she also sings, "why forget me?" Then immediately, to rather seductive music, she suggests that even when he's gone, he should think of her fondly. And maybe, she says, he could come back for a visit at Christmas.

When she leaves, Werther thinks longingly of Christmas, but he knows deep down that it's a false hope. Then he makes his first real reference to suicide — singing about eternal peace. Sophie enters, and finds Werther alone. She asks him why he hasn't joined the others and Werther says he can't. He's leaving, and will be gone forever. When he's gone, Sophie catches up to Charlotte and tells her what Werther has just said. Albert seems to know that Werther is still in love with Charlotte, while Charlotte wonders exactly what Werther meant by "forever."

Act Three: It's Christmas Eve, and Charlotte is alone at home. She rereads the dejected letters written to her by Werther, and admits to herself that she still has feelings for him. While she prays for strength, he suddenly appears. She tries to remain calm and asks him to read to her from his translations of the legendary Scottish poet, Ossian.

Werther chooses a passage in which the poet foresees his own death. When Charlotte begs him to stop, he realizes she still loves him. They embrace, but she quickly turns away, saying she can never see him again. Charlotte runs from the room and Werther leaves the house, determined to die.

Albert comes home, and finds Charlotte distraught. Knowing that Werther is back in town, Albert asks his wife what's bothering her. Nothing, she says. Then a servant arrives with a message from Werther. He's leaving on long journey, he writes, and wants to know if he might borrow Albert's pistols.

Charlotte tries to control her reaction, but her husband realizes that she still loves Werther. Albert has her fetch the pistols, then orders her to give them to the servant herself, to be taken to Werther. Albert then leaves the room, and Charlotte hurries off, praying she can reach Werther before it's too late.

Act Four: Charlotte desperately rushes into Werther's house, calling his name. He has already shot himself, and she finds him lying in a pool of blood. Werther tells her there is no point in calling for help. She says the whole thing is her fault, that she's loved him all along, and they kiss for the first time. Outside, excited children sing Christmas songs. As Werther dies, he imagines that the children are angels, granting him forgiveness.

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