Opera of the Week

brunhilde

Each week (approximately!) I listen to an opera in its entirety and post a review below. Actually, I listen to it twice during my daily commutes to and from work, often an English version first (to help me follow the plot), then an original language version that I carefully select from those available. I also read up on the work from various print sources that I have, and sometimes also watch a video performance. Basically, I immerse myself in the opera for a week. This is as much for my benefit as my readers’. It makes me very familiar with the work, which helps me appreciate it more on future listenings. I also often discover works that I love, or come to like others of which I previously had a negative impression.

Usually these are operas that I’m listening to in their entirety for the first time (I have over 700 to choose from!), after which I offer my initial thoughts and impressions. Operas, like other forms of music, can grow on the listener over time, so I usually keep an open mind even if I don’t care for an opera right away. While I indicate the particular recording(s) I listened to, the review is mostly focused on the work itself and not necessarily the selected performance. Occasionally I will also review the operas I am more familiar with, some of which are briefly encapsulated on the starter operas page. If I’m going to cover fifty operas a year this will take fourteen years, so I’d better get started . . .

My rating scale: CaptureCaptureCaptureCaptureCapture

5 tenors – I love it. I will listen to the whole work often, and seek other recordings of it.
4 tenors – I like it.  I will keep it in my rotation, and try to appreciate more about it.
3 tenors – Neutral. I might re-listen to certain parts, but probably not the whole work.
2 tenors – I didn’t really like it. I’ll keep an open mind; maybe my tastes will change.
1 tenor –  A dud. I don’t know what anyone sees in this. I will likely never listen again.


 

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Fidelio


Opera: Fidelio
Composer: Beethoven
Other popular works by this composer: (none in this genre)
First performed: 1814
Language: German
Accessibility Level: Beginner Adventurer Explorer Expert
Setting: Late 18th century Seville
Plot: The wife of a man unjustly imprisoned and condemned to death disguises herself as a prison worker in order to rescue him
Highlights: OvertureMir Ist So WunderbarO, Welche Lust!; Gott, welch Dunkel hierO namenlose Freude!Heil Sei Dem Tag
Recommended audio recording/sDernesch/Vickers/Karajan;Brewer/Margison/Parry (In English)(The English recording is recommended to familiarize yourself with the plot; the Karajan recording is preferred overall)
Recommended video recording/s: Janowitz/Popp/Bernstein; Mattila/Heppner/Levine
Rating (1 to 5):  CaptureCaptureCaptureCaptureCapture


ludwig-van-beethoven

What is Beethoven’s most famous opera? It’s a trick question; he only wrote one, but he wrote it about four times (it went through many alterations!) I must admit that in spite of being a huge fan of Beethoven’s symphonies and many other inspired works, I wasn’t particularly impressed with his lone opera when I first casually listened to it a few years back. However, after giving a careful listen (or three) to the Karajan recording this week (pictured above), my attitude toward it has totally changed. What, I wondered, had kept me from ranking this among Beethoven’s (and opera’s) greatest works? I’ve certainly had this change-of-heart phenomenon happen with symphonic music, where I dislike a work upon first hearing it yet later love a recording of it by someone else. The same can happen with opera. Sometimes you’re just not ready for a work, and other times it’s just a matter of the right performance to open your eyes and ears. Fidelio is rife with glorious music, especially in the right hands (and legendary German conductor Herbert von Karajan certainly qualifies). Beethoven penned, and Karajan conjures, the kind of sublime sounds I thought were unique to Mozart, sounds that gently rise up out of silence, force you into the sobering present moment and achieve something other-worldly and ethereal. Beethoven, of course, was a contemporary and inheritor of Mozart (he was twenty when Mozart died), and while this opera would be immediately recognized as a work of Beethoven’s by anyone familiar with his music, it also has echos of Wolfgang Amadeus – and neither of these is a bad thing. I have pointed out no less than six highlights in the links above, more than usual, and could have mentioned others. This opera is one highlight after another. In fact, I can’t stop listening to it right now!

Let’s begin with the overture, of which there are four versions. It is referred to as the “Leonore Overture,” because this opera was originally called “Leonore” (the name of the opera’s heroine). The opera went through many revisions, and at some point it was feared that Beethoven’s overture would be too overpowering for the beginning of the work. It was therefore scaled down in order to be a more suitable introduction. The overture is famous in its own right, and likely familiar to many fans of classical music who may not be fans of opera. Personally, I prefer the long, “overpowering” version of it (known today as “Leonore Overture No. 3”), but agree that it is too powerful as an introduction to the opera. Here it is anyway, in all its Beethovian drama and power. It’s a thrilling piece. The dramatic trumpet call mid-overture (at timestamp 8:30 in the clip below) plays a very key role in the plot. Listen to it as you read:

The opera opens in the prison, as prison assistant Jaquino is expressing his interest in the warden’s daughter, Marzelline. He wants to marry her, in fact. Marzelline, however, is in love with the new prison worker Fidelio, who is really a woman named Leonore disguising herself as a young man. Her husband, Florestan, is falsely imprisoned and being starved to death, and she has gone undercover to try to rescue him. The prison warden, Rocco, is very impressed with the disguised Fidelio (Leonore), and wants to see him (her!) marry his daughter. With me so far? (Why are all these opera plots like Three’s Company episodes? And why can no one spot a lady in drag?)

Here we come to the first standout piece in the opera, a gorgeous quartet sung by Fidelio, Marzelline, Rocco and Jaquino about their various situations, Mir ist so wunderbar (a wonderful feeling fills me). It’s beautiful, especially as each voice joins in (and you thought Beethoven was a craggy old curmudgeon!):

The governor of the prison, Don Pizarro, who had imprisoned Florestan (Leonore’s husband) for threatening to expose his crimes, gets word that the King’s minister is visiting the next day and he is hot on the subject of prison reform. Pizarro does not want the minister to discover the unjustly held Florestan, so he decides to kill him. He orders warden Rocco to dig a grave, and to alert him when it is ready. Fidelio overhears this and becomes quite agitated to learn of her husband’s pending fate. She convinces the warden to let the long shut-in prisoners outside to enjoy the beautiful weather, hoping to discover her husband among them. The warden agrees after further persuading from his daughter, which brings us to the second sublime piece of music in this work. As the prisoners walk out into the sunlight for the first time in many months, Beethoven’s music, O Welche Lust! (Oh what joy!) beautifully evokes the wonder and hope cautiously rising up from their gloomy despair. Here one cannot help but think of the real-life prison of Beethoven’s deafness, which at this point in his life was almost complete. That a deaf man could write such a gorgeous, uplifting piece of music as this is remarkable, and we can almost imagine him among the chorus of prisoners in spirit, yearning for relief along side them. Beethoven never heard what you are about to:

Pizarro, the prison governor, gets angry that the prisoners were let out and they are ushered back in. He gives the warden permission to have Fidelio help dig what will be her husband’s grave, as he is to be killed within the hour. At this point, in Act 2, we finally meet the condemned man. He sings a dramatic aria, Gott! Welch Dunkel hier! (God! It’s so dark here!) first extolling his faith, and then recounting a vision he had of his wife coming to save him (tenor Ben Heppner makes a wonderful Florestan in the Levine-led video performance from the Metropolitan Opera. Sadly, it is not available for me to show here).

Fidelio and Rocco finish digging the grave, and Fidelio, still in disguise, gives her husband some bread and water with Rocco’s permission. Pizarro is informed that all is ready for him to kill Florestan. He descends into the dungeon to do the dirty deed, first taunting Florestan with a revelation of who he is and why he is exacting his delicious revenge. As he moves to make the kill, Fidelio intervenes and reveals herself to be Florestan’s wife. Just then the famous trumpet call heard in the overture sounds, signaling that the minister, who is investigating prison abuse, arrives. It is therefore too late for Pizarro to murder his prisoner, for he will be caught in the act. He escapes, and Fidelio (now as Leonore) and Florestan sing an incredibly joyous song celebrating their reunion, O namenlose Freude! (Oh nameless joy!). It is quite an emotional piece – Beethoven outdoes himself in portraying their rapture. Again, it is quite moving in the Levine/Heppner/Mattila video, but here is a great audio version with the wonderful Jessye Norman:

Florestan is free, Pizarro is found out, and the abused prisoners are redeemed. It’s a very happy ending (well, except for poor Marzelline, who just found out her husband-to-be is a woman). The prisoners and the entire company join in a jubilant, rousing final victory celebration, Heil Sei Dem Tag! (Hail to the day!), a classic Beethoven effusion of joyful exuberance, not unlike the endings to his fantastic Choral Fantasy (< watch that video, it’s amazing) and his masterpiece, the Ninth Symphony. It’s one of the most sustained musical expressions of joy you’re likely to hear, barring the masterpiece just mentioned:

If you like Beethoven’s orchestral music, chances are you’ll be impressed with this opera if you give it a chance. I am very glad that I discovered its merits, as it is now one of my favorites. And Happy Birthday, Beethoven. He turned 247 this week. In just three years, we will be celebrating the 250th anniversary of his birth, which is sure to include many performances of this great opera dedicated to hope and freedom, causes dear to Beethoven’s heart.

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The Tales of Hoffmann


Opera: Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann)
ComposerJacques Offenbach
Other popular works by this composer: Orphee aux enfers, La belle Helene, La Perichole
First performed: 1881
Language: French
Accessibility Level: Beginner Adventurer Explorer Expert
Setting: Bavaria, Germany
Plot: A tortured poet recounts his disastrous past love affairs
HighlightsChanson de Kleinzach, Entr’acteLes oiseaux dans la charmilleBelle nuit, ô nuit d’amour
Recommended audio recording/sGedda/Schwarzkopf/de Los Angeles/Cluytens
Recommended video recording/s: None yet!

Rating (1 to 5):  CaptureCaptureCaptureCapture


You know Jacques Offenbach. Yes you do. He wrote the famous and wildly infectious Galop Infernal (more popularly known as the “can-can”) burlesque number from Orpheus in the Underworld. He also wrote many operettas, some that were quite risque for the time and that delighted in poking fun at French society (much as Gilbert and Sullivan liked to do to English society). The Tales of Hoffman was his last opera; in fact, he died before finishing it, in spite of his desire to live long enough to attend its premiere. It is arguably his most popular work, even if the plot is rather hard to follow (this is not at all unusual in the opera world – the plots can be quite convoluted!) God knows I had to listen to, view, and read up on this opera numerous times before I was entirely sure what was going on! The music, however, is wonderful, as Offenbach really knew how to write and work a melody. And be irreverent. That, however, is kept largely in check in Hoffmann. Not that I mind a good dose of irreverence.

The namesake of this opera was a real person, E.T.A. Hoffmann, the German writer best known for penning the tale that ultimately became The Nutcracker. Hoffmann’s stories often invoke fantasy, as is the case with both The Nutcracker and the opera presently under discussion. The opera makes use of three of Hoffmann’s supernatural tales, framed by the author himself who is recounting them as if he personally lived through them. In each tale, he is in love with a woman whom he cannot have, thwarted by a nemesis, and ultimately left humiliated and devastated. This is, presumably, pure fiction (he was married but died of syphilis, so make of that what you will).

What makes keeping track of this seemingly simple plot difficult is that there are a large number of similar characters, many of whom are essentially the same person (in some productions, literally the same person, in different disguises), or at least personifications of the supposed loves and struggles in Hoffmann’s life. In the outer story that frames the three tales, his muse (his poetical inspiration), a woman, transforms into his best friend Nicklaus, a man (this role is consequently sung by a woman, dressed as a man). She/he aims to win Hoffmann for her/himself so that he will keep writing and forget this silly love business. Confused yet? You will be before we’re through (and I skip a lot of the details). Let’s begin.

The opera starts off in a bar where an opera (Mozart’s Don Giovanni) is being performed on an adjoining stage. The patrons rush in during intermission to drink and toast the new prima donna, Stella, whom Hoffmann is in love with. However, so is the sinister Councilor Lindorf. Stella sends Hoffmann a note and the key to her room; Lindorf intercepts it. Hoffmann then entertains his drinking buddies with a colorful song about a dwarf named Kleinzach, the opera’s first well-known number that has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the plot:

Before we get into the bizarre details of the tales themselves, I must mention the delightful entr’acte that takes place before they begin. An entr’acte (French for “between acts”) is a brief musical intermission that sets the stage, as it were, for the next act, much like an overture sets the stage for the whole work. It’s like a musical hors d’oeuvre (in keeping with our French theme!) Not all operas have entr’actes but many do, especially the French works (Carmen has some famous ones). This opera has four of them, and the first is wonderfully upbeat and joyous. It is also sung later on in the act by a chorus, to rousing effect. Here it is in the instrumental form:

Now that the stage is set, Hoffmann proceeds to tell of his three loves (not counting the aforementioned Stella). There are numerous versions of this opera (thanks to Offenbach not totally completing it), and the three tales are not always told in the same order. However, the first one is almost always the tale of Olympia, a mechanical doll created by an inventor named Spalanzani and his buddy Coppelius. Hoffmann does not know Olympia is just a lifelike doll because of special glasses he is wearing (given to him by his nemesis in this act, Coppelius) that make her appear real. He promptly falls in love with her. The doll sings a famously difficult aria, Les oiseaux dans la charmille (a.k.a. “The Doll Song”), having to be wound up several times when she starts to run down. This is a comical showpiece in the hands of more gifted performers and a real workout for the soprano in terms of acting, moving stiffly and singing the difficult passages:

Hoffmann’s nemesis destroys the doll out of spite and everyone laughs at him for having loved an automaton. Next up (depending on which version you watch) is the tale of Hoffman’s love for Antonia, who is sick and forbidden to sing by her father, Crespel, as it makes her weaker. The incarnation of Hoffmann’s nemesis in this scene is the sarcastically-named Dr. Miracle, who promises to make Antonia better but actually forces her to sing, which kills her. One of the highlights of this act is the comic performance of Frantz, Crespel’s somewhat inept and flamboyant servant (gotta love the French – watch this!):

The last tale opens with the opera’s most famous number, a barcarolle or boat song called Belle nuit, o nuit d’amour (beautiful night, oh night of love), which you have surely heard before. I have posted two videos of it below, one instrumental led by the wonderful French conductor Georges Pretre, and one vocal sung beautifully by Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca. Gorgeous!

This final tale involves Giulietta, a courtesan (a nice word for a high-class prostitute). She pretends to love Hoffmann, but is really doing so to get a diamond ring offered by his nemesis, Dapertutto, who wants her to steal Hoffmann’s reflection (I’m still not sure why). She does so, abandons Hoffmann, and ends up dying like the other two lovers. Poor Hoffmann! Foiled and embarrassed again!

We come full circle to the same tavern that opened the story, where Hoffmann swears off of women (who can blame him at this point?) His friend Nicklause reveals himself to really be his muse, who loves him. Hoffmann returns to her, and poetry, and the devious Lindorf (represented by the evil men in each of the tales) leaves with Stella, Hoffmann’s original love – different aspects of whom were also personified in each of the tales (in some productions the three evil men are played by the same singer, as are the three women. The latter is rarer, however, due to the very different types of singers required for the women).

I highly recommend the recording of this opera pictured at the top of the page, led by French conductor Andre Cluytens. I have listened to numerous renditions of this work, and the Cluytens recording is a clear favorite. The music stands out in terms of the drama, tempo and reverence that Cluytens expertly imparts on this delicious score.

There is no recording of this opera in English, so if you want to follow the complex story (bless you) you’ll have to read along with the libretto and its translation (included with most CDs), or watch a video performance with subtitles, which is far easier. The Metropolitan Opera performance I’d recommend, from which the doll song above is excerpted, is not yet available on DVD. Of course, you can also just listen to the wonderful music without following the plot, as I often do. Until next time, bon apetit!

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The Elixir of Love


Opera: L’Elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love)
Composer: Gaetano Donizetti
Other popular works by this composer: Lucia di Lammermoor, Don Pasquale
First performed: 1832
Language: Italian
Accessibility Level: Beginner Adventurer Explorer Expert
Setting: Late 18th-century Spain/France
Plot: A lovesick peasant buys a love potion from a snake oil salesman to win over his beloved, unaware that it is simply wine
Highlights: Quanto è bella, Una furtiva lagrima
Recommended audio recording/s: Banks/Plazas/Holland/Shore/Parry [in English]; Pavarotti/Sutherland; Carreras/Riccarelli
Recommended video recording/sVillazon/Netrebko

Rating (1 to 5):  CaptureCaptureCaptureCaptureCapture


Donizetti’s operas, of which he wrote over seventy, do not generally rank in my list of  favorites. In all honesty, however, I’ve only casually listened to a few of the more famous ones, so I still keep an open mind. There are lots more to explore (and we’ll cover many of those in the weeks – and years – ahead). Furthermore, at times you’ll like operas right away, on first listening, and other times they grow on you with repeated listening and as your sophistication level increases. They can be like fine wine. And, speaking of wine, it has a prominent role in this story.

I liked the opera immediately. In fact, I loved it. It has a lot of infectious, lively tunes, one ultra-famous, heartbreaking one and lots of choral interjection, which I always love. It is an opera buffa, or comic opera (think “buffoon”), and as such is a lot of fun to listen to. What’s more, the story is both touching and relatable, unlike many operas that have bizarre or overly melodramatic plots. Donizetti wrote this opera in only six weeks, and wisely added its most famous number after the original drafts were complete. It is one of the twenty most performed operas in the world.

The music in this opera reminded me very much of that of Rossini – not surprising, considering it is from the same time period and has a madcap plot not unlike Rossini’s Barber of Seville. In fact, only a few years prior to this opera being premiered, Rossini had just finished writing his last one (William Tell). Here, Donizetti picks up his mantle, with enormous success (and with more than a few similarities to his forebear’s work).

I highly recommend listening to this opera sung in English first. This is always good advice as it helps with understanding the plot, but especially so when the story is so much fun to follow (with some operas, you’re better off not knowing the convoluted and ridiculous plot!) It also happens that the recording of this opera in English, pictured above, is of excellent quality (for an original-language (Italian) recording there are several good choices, including those sung by Pavarotti and Carreras). Andrew Shore, who sings the role of Dr. Dulcamara (the love potion hawker) in the English-language version, is wonderfully demonstrative and emphatic (check him out in the English-language Barber Of Seville and Don Pasquale as well).

Now, on to the Three’s Company-worthy plot:

Nemorino, a poor peasant, is in love with Adina, whom he perceives to be out of his league – she’s educated and wealthy, both of which he is not. Adina is indifferent to his affection, and is also being pursued by the soldier Belcore. She’s not really interested in him, either, and prefers to play the field. She’s a free spirit, she is.

The opera opens with a jaunty tune sung by the peasants, extolling their simple village life. Nemorino then spies Adina, and sings of his love for her in the tenor standard Quanto e bella (“she’s so beautiful”):

Enter Belcore, the soldier, who also woos Adina with his own (less famous) aria, after which the whole cast sings a highly energetic number that slowly builds to a frenetic pace. This, more than anything, reminded me of Rossini, employing a technique he used to build excitement in a song by gradually increasing its tempo and volume.

“Doctor” Dulcamara makes his grand entrance next, rolling his cart of potions and magical cures behind him (again, I am reminded of Fiagro’s similar entrance in The Barber of Seville, cart and all). Dulcamara brags of his ability to cure any and all ills with his mysterious concoctions. This, of course, gives the lovesick Nemorino an idea. He pays all the money he has for a “love” potion, which is really nothing but alcohol. The “doctor” tells him it takes twenty-four hours to take effect, which, in reality, allows him to leave town before Nemorino discovers he’s been swindled. Nemorino takes a couple of swigs and starts to feel giddy. Adina walks by but he ignores her, afraid to interact with her before he gets the full effect of the potion. She takes this as a snub, and seems a bit . . . disappointed. She may have feelings for Nemorino that she does not admit to.

Belcore returns asking Adina to marry him (things happen quickly in opera plots!). She agrees to do so in six days time, just to spite the suddenly indifferent Nemorino, having no intention of following through. Nemorino overhears the proposal but is unconcerned, confident that his potion will make Adina his in just one day, not six. However, when Belcore is given military orders to leave the next day, Adina agrees to marry him right away, and Nemorino is now very concerned. He sings a plaintive aria (Adina Credimi) pleading with Adina to wait just one more day. Adina and the villagers join in for a rousing finish. Here it is sung by Luciano Pavarotti:

Adina is unmoved and determined to continue with her plans, however, and Act 2 opens with a jaunty wedding feast:

When Adina sees that Nemorino is not present, she delays the nuptials until evening (she’s apparently got it for him bad, as much as she desperately tries to make him jealous!) Nemorino is beside himself, and begs the doctor for more potion, but he has no money. He therefore agrees to enlist as a soldier to earn an immediate signing bonus. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, Nemorino’s uncle has died and left him a fortune (I told you this was like a Three’s Company plot!) Also, Adina discovers that Nemorino bought the potion from the doctor to win her love and she now feels remorse for treating him badly.

Nemorino walks on stage alone to sing this opera’s greatest number, and, indeed, one of opera’s greatest tenor arias. Surely it is the greatest one that Donizetti penned: Una furtiva lagrima (one secret tear – a reference to Nemorino’s realization that Adina loves him after all when he witnesses her shed a tear for him). While I’ve always loved Pavarotti’s treatment of this aria, I was blown away when I heard Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon sing it on his DVD performance from 2006, which I very highly recommend. It is funny, playful, and extremely well sung and acted. Villazon is incredibly versatile – he is like Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean character with his comical contortions and facial gestures, and he even juggles on stage while singing. The audience gives him a thunderous and warm ovation (twice!) after his famous aria, and demands an encore. It’s a joy to watch, and we have to wonder if he is in or out of character while he bashfully absorbs the audience’s earnest admiration:

Adina gets Nemorino out of his military contract and begs him to stay. She finally and passionately admits her love for him and vows to love him forever. Dulcamara declares his love potion a smashing success (not only does it make you fall in love, but rich, too!), and Sergeant Belcore takes his loss in stride, declaring there are plenty of other women to marry. The transformation in the two main characters in the Villazon/Netrebko video performance is incredibly heartwarming and gets a long, enthusiastic ovation in the final scene. It is wonderful to see such chemistry and authenticity between two principals, and it’s an opera that has a rare happy ending. L’elisir d’amore – an elixir to make you fall in love – with opera!

(I apologize for the foreign subtitles – copyright laws prohibit the American/English version from being posted online).
 I found it curious that during the bows, two male performers were thrown flowers (those playing Belcore and Dulcamara), but not the female (Netrebko) or male lead (Villazon)!

The Villazon/Netrebko DVD

The Pavarotti CD

The Carreras CD

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Werther


Opera: Werther
Composer: Jules Massenet
Other popular works by this composer: Manon, Le Cid, Thais
First performed: 1892
Language: French
Accessibility level: Beginner Adventurer Explorer Expert
Setting: Late 18th-century Germany
Plot: A melancholy and suicidal young poet pines over another man’s woman, with tragic results
Highlights: O Nature, pleine de grâce; Pourquoi me réveiller
Recommended audio recording/s: Bocelli/Gertseva
Rating (1 to 5):  CaptureCaptureCaptureCapture


Werther, a poet and the protagonist of this opera, is a man after my own heart: brooding, introspective, focused on what (and whom) he can’t have. He’s serious and full of gloom. The opera is based on Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, but a good substitute title would be “Fatal Attraction.”

The opera starts with a prelude that begins, appropriately, on a dramatic and tragic note, but then veers off into innocence and tenderness. The first scene opens on children practicing a pleasant Christmas song, which will come back in a haunting way later in the story.  Reference is made to Charlotte, the object of Werther’s longing, and Albert, her betrothed. Werther enters in a rather contemplative mood, extolling the beauty of nature in poetic observations via a lovely aria, O Nature, pleine de grâce (O nature, full of grace). He has come to escort Charlotte to a ball since her fiance is away. This could perhaps be the reason for his magnanimous mood . . .


Werther expresses his love for Charlotte. She gently rebuffs him, especially after being informed that her soon-to-be husband Albert has made a surprise return home. Werther laments that his life would be wonderful if only Charlotte were his. She then rhapsodizes about her deceased mother, who made her promise to marry Albert, while Werther inappropriately steers the conversation back to her lovely eyes and mouth. In an act of pity and affection (and forbidden love?), Charlotte agrees to meet up with Werther, platonically, at Christmas, inadvertently keeping his desperate hope alive. In spite of this, he philosophizes casually on death by suicide should he continue to suffer disappointment (operas frequently feature characters with exaggerated and extreme emotions, and this one is no exception).

Albert figures out that Werther is in love with his (now) wife, and Charlotte begins to have stronger feelings for Werther in light of the letters he’s written her. Werther indeed visits her at Christmas, and they reminisce. We then come to this opera’s pièce de résistance and Massenet’s greatest aria – Pourquoi me reveiller (why do you awaken me?), an ultra-dramatic tenor showpiece wherein Werther is reciting a poem by Ossian that he is fond of. It is brooding and pessimistic, like our protagonist, with soaring angst and bitter resignation. The singer asks why spring teases him with warmth and joy, when it will only be followed by eventual sorrow. There are many wonderful renditions of this aria by the likes of Andrea Bocelli, Pavarotti and countless others, but the version below, by my third-favorite tenor, Juan Diego Florez, is especially heartfelt and moving. If this doesn’t stir you, check your pulse.


Werther expresses his love for Charlotte strongly, and while she seems to weaken, she ultimately rejects it. He leaves, and Albert soon appears, suspicious. A servant arrives with a note from Werther, asking to borrow Albert’s pistols since he is going away. Albert gladly obliges, and Charlotte is horrified. In the final act, she hurries to him and finds he has shot himself. She finally declares that she loves him, and did all along. In the background, the children sing their Christmas hymn as Werther dies in Charlotte’s arms, fulfilling the sorrow he foretold in his famous aria.

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