Wanting to be loved, Massenet showed himself naturally superior in expressing love, and he created a language of tenderness that resembles no other. A melody by Massenet is recognizable among a thousand. It has a penetrating sensitivity, a troubling sensuality, a supple grace.... [i]f, by chance, Manon and Werther were his only scores destined to remain in the memories of future generations, this would still be enough worthily to represent a truly brilliant era of our lyric theater ... and the delightful French master that the whole world adored and acclaimed.
-Alfred Bruneau, 1912 obituary for Jules Massenet in Le Matin
The operas Manon and Werther, like sister and brother born in the 1880s, were both intended for the Opéra-Comique in Paris. Werther, however, established itself more slowly in the repertory, especially in the French capital. In various ways three gifted tenors played crucial roles in giving Werther its chance at life on the stage. All three eventually performed the title role in Paris, but it was Ernest Van Dyck (1861–1923) who sang the role at the world premiere in Vienna on February 16, 1892. The second tenor, Guillaume Ibos (1860–1952), made possible the French premiere. In the midst of an international career, he read a newspaper story in Le Figaro about Massenet’s difficulties in casting the title role, contacted the composer, and volunteered for the job in late December 1892. By then, after almost four months of rehearsals, Massenet had rejected at least three other tenors. And so, in a heroic feat of musicianship, Ibos learned the role in a few days and sang it for the public on January 16, 1893. Finally, when the French director Albert Carré organized a well-publicized, beautifully staged reprise of Werther on April 24, 1903, the third tenor, Léon Beyle (1871–1922), stepped forward late in the rehearsals for an indisposed colleague. With his handsome countenance and warm, lyric sound, he fit the role so perfectly that the Parisian public finally embraced the opera. Werther could then become a fixture in the Opéra-Comique repertory, with 1,000 performances at that house alone by 1938.
The idea for an opera called Werther dates back to at least 1880, when Massenet’s publisher, Georges Hartmann, and his librettist for Hérodiade, Paul Milliet, discussed setting Goethe’s epistolary novel about the doomed love of the melancholy Werther for Charlotte, the dutiful fiancée and then wife of Werther’s friend Albert. Milliet drew up a scenario under Hartmann’s close supervision, referring to details in Goethe’s text and accommodating Massenet’s input. Over and over again, he revised the libretto to Hartmann’s specifications. Even after Massenet began writing the music in 1885, more revisions to the libretto took place; in fact, at his insistence the second act was transformed in June 1886, apparently by a third librettist, Édouard Blau. Before the composer left for Bayreuth to hear Parsifal in mid-August of that year, he had nonetheless largely finished the third act. While still orchestrating the score the next spring, he played the opera through for Léon Carvalho, director of the Opéra-Comique. The reaction was negative: “I was hoping you’d bring me another Manon. This mournful subject has no interest. It is condemed from the start!” Still, Carvalho did not close off negotiations and may have intended to impose some of his legendary revisions to ensure a successful premiere; but further meetings could not take place, for the Opéra-Comique burned on May 25, 1887, killing dozens. Carvalho stepped down from his post and before Werther finally reached the stage, Massenet would write Esclarmonde and Le Mage and sketch Amadis. (Even Thaïs was completed before the Parisian premiere in 1893.) During this time, Ernest Van Dyck would play Des Grieux in the acclaimed Vienna production of Manon (November 1890), and Massenet later credited the tenor with the idea of bringing Werther to life (in German) on that same stage.
As Werther made its way around the world, critics warned audiences that the subject was especially dark. After its New York premiere in 1894 a critic wrote: “Werther despairs in Act I, continues to despair in Acts II, and III, and becomes desperate in Act IV. The music is, therefore, incessantly yearning in character and somber in color.” This intimate score supported by an imaginatively used but relatively modest-sized orchestra foregoes a chorus other than the six children under Charlotte’s care. Sophie, her younger sister, has a crush on Werther and adds a touch of cheerfulness, not to mention some roulades. Despite the moving letter scene for Charlotte towards the end of the opera, critics and public alike understood this to be a tenor’s opera: Werther has four solos and four duets with Charlotte. He enters with the invocation to nature (“Ô nature pleine de grâce), its middle section supported by magical harmonies; near the end of the first act he and Charlotte have a few moments of happiness together in the moonlight before she lets Werther know she has already promised her dying mother to marry Albert. In the second act, Werther enters with a solo that reflects his agitated state (“Un autre est son époux/J’aurais sur ma poitrine”) and later intones a dramatic prayer that presages his suicide (“Lorsque l’enfant revient”). Finally, in the third act he sings the celebrated two-strophe Lied (“Pourquoi me réveiller” also called the “Stances d’Ossian”). No wonder Van Dyck was so eager to create the title role.
Massenet met Van Dyck in the salons of Paris shortly after the aspiring tenor arrived from Brussels. He sent Paul Vidal, his student, to Van Dyck when the young man desperately needed a substitute tenor to perform his Rome Prize cantata. Coached by Massenet, the singer learned the thirty-minute score in one day. The jury at the Institute was impressed, and so, too, were the other competitors. Though Vidal won the 1883 prize, Debussy, who took second place that year, made sure he had Van Dyck’s services the next year when the composer’s setting of L’Enfant Prodigue took the grand prize. Publicity surrounding the Rome Prize performances brought Van Dyck to the attention of the conductor Lamoureux, who later cast him in the title role of Lohengrin for its French premiere on May 3, 1887. This performance was a fiasco, but delegates from Vienna, Berlin, and even Bayreuth attended and admired Van Dyck’s voice. Alerted by her emissaries of this tenor’s potential, Wagner’s widow Cosima soon chose him as her Parsifal for 1888 (he would sing the role some fifty times at the Wagner Festival between 1888 and 1901), and in the same year he made his Vienna debut as Lohengrin.
Since Massenet had helped to launch his career, it was only natural that Van Dyck might aid his benefactor in return. In July 1891 his correspondence with Wilhelm Jahn, director of the Vienna Opera, shows him persuasively arguing Massenet’s case, reminding Jahn that he needed to make an official decision about performing Werther at the Vienna Opera and underlining that Massenet would find it a great honor to have the first performance there—with Van Dyck, of course, in the leading role. The missive is clear, polite and appropriately strong. Van Dyck made an excellent case for the project, but, of course, we might expect nothing less from someone who had trained for a career in law before he chose music.
A large man with noble gestures that suited the legendary characters he often portrayed, Van Dyck was known for his formidable mastery of declamation; each word, each syllable was delivered with intention and emotional interpretation. Ideal for Wagner roles, this ability to declaim the words while singing them is also audible in his 1903 recording of Werther’s “Pourquoi me réveiller,” which can be heard on YouTube. In Vienna he was known as “the French tenor,” and in that house the work in which he appeared most often was Manon. Still, his association with Wagner’s music was strong; for example, from 1898–1902 he performed 113 times for the Metropolitan Opera in New York and with a troupe from that house came to San Francisco in 1900 to sing Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, and the city’s first complete Ring cycle. In the early twentieth century Van Dyck spoke, however, of his fondness for the French repertory: “But what I like the most to remember about my career, already fourteen years long, are my creations of Manon and Werther at the Vienna opera....[W]hen I retire ... I’ll take a certain pride in recalling that I helped make these two splendid scores of my dear, great Massenet beloved as much in London and New York as in Vienna, by singing them several hundred times.”
Van Dyck had been a real collaborator with Massenet in Vienna, and the forty curtain calls after Werther’s triumphant premiere there produced the desired effect on Carvalho. Once again director of the Opéra-Comique, he wrote to Massenet asking him to repatriate Werther, which had been written, after all, as a French opera.
Carvalho may have had second thoughts about this invitation during the epic tournament of tenors that took place during rehearsals the next fall. No tenor could measure up to Massenet’s standards. And so, when Guillaume Ibos, known to Massenet because he had sung Roland in the Brussels premiere of the composer’s Esclarmonde (November 1890), appeared at the theater in late December 1892 claiming he could learn the role in a week, the director must have been skeptical. Still, the rest of the cast and the orchestra were ready, and so giving the boastful Ibos a chance was a logical decision. Indeed, he must have learned the role just about as quickly as promised, for the French premiere took place three weeks after Ibos’s name appears in the rehearsal register. And if the critics were tepid about his performance on January 16, 1893, they were nonetheless positive about Werther.
In 1903 Massenet admitted to Albert Carré that he was still waiting to encounter “the” Werther. In fact, during rehearsals for Carré’s reprise at the Opéra-Comique, he did not immediately recognize that Léon Beyle was the man for the job: the rehearsal register shows Beyle and another tenor, Albert Saléza, were singing at various times. Notices in the press announced that Saléza was “indisposed,” but, given Massenet’s track record, it seems plausible that the composer decided just a week before the reprise that Beyle was, for the moment, “the” Werther after all. The audience, however, had no doubts. Beyle’s physique, his beautiful voice tinged with tenderness and emotion, and his acting ability together projected Werther as a truly living being. With the demure Jeanne Marié de l’Isle (niece of the first Carmen, Célestine Galli-Marié) as Charlotte, the sympathetic pair in an imaginative production revealed the true appeal of the score. Later that year, Van Dyck came to Paris for gala performances of Werther at the Opéra-Comique, but though critics were largely positive about him, Beyle’s portrayal was already so deeply etched in the public’s consciousness that Van Dyck did not dislodge him. Indeed, Beyle sang for the 100th performance of Werther in September 1904 and continued to be associated with that role at the Opéra-Comique for the rest of that decade.
In December 1907 and again in June 1912, the president of the French Gramophone Company, Alfred Clark, donated 78-rpm wax discs (forty-eight in all) that were sealed in urns and stored in the basement of the Paris Opera along with a gramophone to play them. As intended, they remained untouched for 100 years. Chosen to represent the most celebrated singers of that time for listeners in the next century, four of these discs feature Beyle, including two Werther excerpts. The performances are surprisingly effective and at times almost modern in style. “A robust voice, warmly colored, admirably homogeneous, impeccable technique, great style: the essential qualities of the great French tenors”—these qualities, acknowledged in the periodical Lyrica after Beyle’s premature death in 1922, are audible in his Werther recordings.
Debussy, like Bruneau, wrote an obituary for Le Matin in 1912, and there, perhaps with a tinge of envy, he acknowledged that Massenet was the most truly loved of all contemporary musicians. Various Massenet pieces were mentioned in the many tributes of 1912, but none more often than Manon and Werther. And today these operas, still beloved, continue to move us with their emotional truth, ravishing orchestration, and ingratiating Massenet melodies.
Dr. Lesley Wright is a professor of musicology at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. She is a contributor to numerous publications and is currently preparing a critical edition of Werther for Bärenreiter.