Music: Jules Massenet Libretto: Georges Hartmann, Édouard Blau, & Paul Milliet World premiere: Vienna Court Opera, February 16 1892
A mother dies. The family mourns. The seasons pass.
ACT I: THE HOME OF THE BAILIFF
Wetzlar, Germany, early July. The newly widowed Bailiff is, oddly, rehearsing a Christmas carol with his young children on a warm summer evening. Since the death of his wife, his eldest daughter, Charlotte, has been looking after the family. Two of his drinking friends stop by and discuss the young poet Werther, who is to escort Charlotte to a ball that evening. They also ask about Charlotte’s absent fiancé, Albert. After they have gone into the house, Werther appears and reflects on the beauty of nature. Charlotte returns, dressed for the ball, and Werther watches as she gives the children a treat and then leaves them in the care of Sophie, her 15-year-old sister. Deeply touched by the idyllic scene, Werther departs with Charlotte. The Bailiff sets off to join his friends at the inn and Sophie remains alone as night falls. She is surprised by the arrival of Albert, who has returned after a long absence. They talk happily of his impending marriage to Charlotte and go off into the house.
Charlotte and Werther dance at the ball, entranced by each other. In the moonlight, they return to the Bailiff’s house. Werther praises Charlotte’s beauty and devotion to her family; she remembers her mother. Werther passionately declares his love for her and they are about to kiss when the Bailiff calls out from the house that Albert is back. The spell is broken. Charlotte admits that he is the man she promised her dying mother to marry. Werther is devastated.
ACT II: THE LINDEN TREES
It is late September and the 50th anniversary of the Pastor’s marriage is being celebrated in the village. Charlotte and Albert have been married for three months. Werther has maintained a friendship with them but is tormented by the idea that Charlotte belongs to another man. Albert tells him that he understands why Werther is so depressed: he knows all too well what it would mean to lose her. Werther assures him that he only feels friendship for them both. Sophie enters and happily invites Werther for a dance but he evades her. When Charlotte appears he cannot prevent himself from speaking of his love and recalls their first meeting. Charlotte reminds him of her duties as a wife. For both of their sakes, she says, he must leave town and not return until Christmas. Alone, Werther gives in to his despair, musing on the idea of suicide. Sophie returns to invite him to the festivities but he brusquely replies that he is departing forever and rushes off, leaving her in tears. When Sophie passes on the news, Albert realizes that Werther is still in love with Charlotte. The celebration for the wedding anniversary begins.
ACT III: ALBERT’S HOUSE
Christmas Eve. Charlotte obsessively re-reads Werther’s letters, admitting to herself that she still loves him as much as he loves her. Sophie arrives and tries to cheer her up, but Charlotte gives in to her despair. Suddenly Werther appears, utterly desolate. Together they evoke tender memories of playing the piano and reading poetry together. Werther tells her that he’s still in love with her and that she must admit that she loves him. He becomes increasingly wild and she becomes fearful, torn between giving in to him and escaping from him. He struggles with her, then kisses her. She panics and runs from the room, telling him they will never meet again. Left without hope, Werther declares she has delivered a sentence of death and leaves. Albert returns, knowing that Werther has come back. He questions Charlotte as a servant hands him a note from Werther: he is going on a long journey and asks to borrow Albert’s pistols. Albert orders his wife to hand them over. As soon as Albert leaves the room, Charlotte rushes off to save Werther.
INTERLUDE: CHRISTMAS EVE
Charlotte runs through the snow to Werther’s room. Werther contemplates suicide, writes a letter and abandons it. He uses one of Albert’s pistols to shoot himself.
ACT IV: THE DEATH OF WERTHER
Charlotte finds Werther mortally wounded in his study. He asks her not to call for help, happy to finally be united with her. She admits that she has loved him since they first met. Werther dies in her arms as the children’s Christmas carol is heard outside.