Two stunning vocalists are featured in a new production of the Massenet’s strongest and most involving tragedy. Tenor Ramón Vargas, “a creamy-voiced singer who floats high notes easily” (The New York Times), returns to San Francisco Opera in one of his signature roles, a poet who cannot bear the pain of unrequited love.

World-renowned British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote sings Charlotte, and “spares nothing in emotion, vocal energy and heartbreak” (The Observer of London). Francisco Negrin directs San Francisco’s new production. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume brings to life the exotic swirl of Massenet’s music, eliciting “a properly French sound” from the orchestra (Chicago Tribune).

Sung in French with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes including one intermission

Co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago

Production photos: Cory Weaver

Audio credit: Audio excerpts are from the October 10, 1985 performance of Werther with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra conducted by Michael Plasson


Charlotte Alice Coote Sept/Dec
Sophie Heidi Stober * Sept/Dec
Albert Brian Mulligan Sept/Dec
The Baliff Christian Van Horn Sept/Dec
Schmidt Robert MacNeil Sept/Dec
Kätchen Susannah Biller * Sept/Dec
Brühlmann Austin Kness Sept/Dec
Johann Bojan Knezevic Sept/Dec

Production Credits

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume Sept/Dec
Director Francisco Negrin Sept/Dec
Lighting Designer Duane Schuler Sept/Dec

* San Francisco Opera Debut



In the garden of his home, the bailiff is teaching his younger children a Christmas carol. A widower and father of a large family, he reminds them that their elder sister Charlotte is within earshot and will not be pleased with their performance. His two friends, Johann and Schmidt, come to lure him away for an evening at the local inn, but he says he must first see Charlotte safely off to a ball given by friends in the town. She is being escorted by Werther, an idealistic young man, in place of her fiancé Albert, who is away on business. The bailiff promises to meet his friends later and they leave as Werther comes to call for Charlotte. Overcome by the rustic charm of the surroundings, Werther extols the beauties of nature. On being introduced to Charlotte, he is immediately struck by her warmth and innocent beauty and dreams of passing a life of happiness at her side. They leave for the ball. Charlotte’s sister Sophie, remaining at home to take care of the children, insists that her father go to meet his friends. When all have left and Sophie is alone, Albert returns unexpectedly, eager to see his betrothed and to know what has been happening during his six months’ absence. Not finding Charlotte at home, he leaves, promising to return the next day.

Charlotte and Werther return from the ball lost in each other. She tells him of the shock of her beloved mother’s death, and Werther declares his love. The bailiff’s voice interrupts announcing Albert’s return, and Charlotte tells a stunned Werther of her promise to her dying mother to marry Albert.


Three months later, Albert, Charlotte, and Werther have become very good friends. It is Sunday before a service, which will be followed by the celebrations for the pastor’s 50th wedding anniversary. Before entering the church with Charlotte, to whom he has been married for three months, Albert asks her if he has succeeded in making her happy and receives her assurances. Contemplating them from a distance, Werther is again distraught at the idea that another man is her husband. Albert tells Werther that he feels almost guilty in his happiness, knowing that Werther himself must have been attracted to Charlotte. Werther assures him that he has forgotten that dream. They are interrupted by Sophie who arrives eager for the festivities, and Albert tries to make Werther aware of her obvious interest in him. Charlotte leaves the church, having found renewed strength in prayer, to be met by Werther’s unhappy reminiscences and increasingly passionate declarations. Her resistance is at the breaking point, so she orders him to leave until Christmas. Alone, Werther contemplates suicide and rushes away, to Sophie’s distress. As the celebrations begin, Charlotte and Albert discover Sophie crying, and Albert now realizes that Werther loves his wife.


Alone on Christmas Eve, Charlotte is obsessed by the thought of Werther as she rereads his many letters. Sophie enters, but her attempts to cheer her sister only result in Charlotte breaking into tears. Alone again, Charlotte desperately prays to God for strength. Werther appears; after Charlotte assures him that nothing has changed in the house since he left, he laments, “nothing but the hearts.” However, Charlotte’s reaction as he recites one of their favorite poets betrays her, and Werther, overjoyed, passionately embraces her. Charlotte, horrified at her momentary weakness, banishes Werther forever, leaving him alone and determined on suicide. Albert enters after Werther’s departure and is suspicious of Charlotte’s behavior. They are interrupted by Werther’s servant who comes asking for the loan of some pistols since his master is leaving on a long journey. Albert orders Charlotte to give them to the man, but as soon as she is alone, she rushes after Werther hoping to prevent a tragedy. Charlotte arrives too late. She can do nothing except declare her love. Werther dies in her arms, while from the distance comes the sound of the children’s Christmas carols.

Director's Note

Robert Wilder Blue

“I love Werther,” exclaims Francisco Negrin. “It’s extremely beautiful and much more intelligent than it is given credit for being. It’s an opera that’s truly about what is happening psychologically between the characters, like an Ibsen play. It’s actually the first opera I ever directed, more than twenty years ago.”

Recently, during a lunch break from rehearsals for San Francisco Opera’s new production of Jules Massenet’s Werther, Negrin discussed the themes he wants to bring out in the opera. “Werther can be seen just as a melodrama: boy meets girl, he can’t have her because she’s duty-bound, and it all ends badly. But there’s more to be taken from it. First of all, Massenet’s music is more elaborate than the Italian Romantic operas of the same period, in terms of bringing out the psychology of the characters. It creates a specific atmosphere, both visually and psychologically that does not just accompany the singers. The French text is both subtle and sophisticated in terms of the information we can gather about the characters. It’s not just a simple opera libretto.

“In this production, the passion and lyricism and sadness won’t always come where you expect, but hopefully from a deeper psychological place. We want to emphasize that it’s an opera about wasted opportunities, wasted lives. It’s about people who, for all sorts of reasons—duty, society, bad habits—fail to take advantage of the opportunities offered to them. It’s an opera about how we repress the things we really want to say, the actions we really want to take, and do other things instead, getting lost on the way.

“We also want to show that the love story takes place, initially, more in Werther’s imagination. He wants to be in love with a girl like Charlotte and falls in love with her at first sight without really knowing her. He loves what she represents, the type of girl she is, the type of life he is looking for. Initially, Charlotte finds this amusing; she doesn’t even know him, so she doesn’t take it seriously. Werther insists on this love, which he cannot have because Charlotte is marrying Albert.

“Charlotte is not clear that she doesn’t want the love to happen. She tries to be nice to Werther, but unconsciously leads him on and causes more of a mess. She has opportunities to stop this, but she doesn’t. Then, she settles into her marriage, but cannot forget Werther. When she finally wakes up to the fact that she loves him, it’s too late; they miss each other. It’s a wasted opportunity. The opera is revealed as a tragedy instead of a tear jerker.

“When [conductor] Emmanuel Villaume and I began discussing the piece, we realized we had arrived at similar interpretations. We were finding the same things in the music and the text. I think we’re portraying what is really in the music, not what people think is there. Listening to the music and studying the text, you can see that Charlotte really wasn’t in love with Werther in the beginning.

“The twist of this production is not that we do it naked or with chain saws or set on the moon. The music and text are as they are meant to be. But, we prolong the building of the story quite a long time until the musical interlude between Acts III and IV, which is the most amazing and passionate music in the opera. This is where we situate the love story. Up to then, it’s really more of a non-love story. The twist is that the love duet doesn’t actually take place in this production. Instead, we see Charlotte, now married for a few months, remembering what happened during the previous summer when she met Werther. She rereads his letters, and falls asleep, and imagines what might have happened. When she wakes up from the dream, she realizes she is in love with Werther. The actual love scene will take place shortly after, during the interlude between the two final acts. I think this is really what defines the production.

“The set  we created with designer Louis Désiré tries to help make the story more universal, rather than setting it in a specific period or a specific place. It’s a little more abstract than that. The ideas are taken from the Sturm und Drang movement of the 18th century, which was Goethe’s philosophical movement. The main idea is that it’s acceptable to be passionate about the essential elements of life—love and nature, for example—provided that is done in a contained, intellectual way. This was a period of very organized gardens that seemed beautiful and wild, but in fact, were highly planned and contained. We have set Werther in a garden with trees in metal bases that are placed in just the right way. The characters live within this larger metallic container.

“We also wanted to create a sense of instability. At the beginning, Charlotte has just lost her mother, so we have an image of the mother’s things being put away into crates, hidden, almost repressed. The mourning, the sadness over the mother’s death, is contained in those boxes. Later when Albert moves in, more crates containing Albert’s belongings are brought into the house. Once again, objects and what they represent are in containers.”

With a background in cinematography, it’s not surprising that Negrin is known for creating beautiful and arresting images on stage. Yet, his work is distinguished equally by its faithfulness to the text and music. Singers admire him for his collaborative spirit. “When I work,” explains Negrin, “I try to create something specific to the group of people involved in the production. It’s never interesting to do something the same way you did it before. In preparing the piece, we have not worked in the traditional way of rehearsing the music separately and then working out the staging. We have worked on both at the same time, so that we find ways of expressing what we want to theatrically and musically, together.

“One of the reasons I love Werther is that it’s an opera that allows the artists to really sing; it’s like bel canto in that regard, but the music is nuanced and requires a certain delicacy and a lot of intelligence to interpret it. Singers who are wonderful musicians can really show off in the piece.”

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Massenet's Werther and the Three Tenors

Lesley Wright

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.

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  • Wed 09/15/10 7:30pm

  • Sat 09/18/10 8:00pm *

  • Wed 09/22/10 7:30pm *

  • Sun 09/26/10 2:00pm *

  • Tue 09/28/10 8:00pm

  • Fri 10/1/10 8:00pm

*OperaVision, HD video projection screens featured in the Balcony level for this performance, is made possible by the Koret/Taube Media Suite.


Company Sponsors Mrs. Edmund W. Littlefield and John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn are proud to support this production.

Cast, program, prices and schedule are subject to change.