Goethe’s novel of 1774, reflecting something of his own experiences and those of people he knew, had a strong influence on his contemporaries. In two parts, the first in the form of letters, the work was characteristic of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) period of German culture in the 1770s and had an influence even on dress and behaviour. Young men came to favour the blue coat and yellow breeches of Werther and some brought their lives to a similar conclusion, perhaps after his example. Massenet’s operatic treatment of the work came more than a century later in an opera of marked dramatic contrasts. In 1902 Massenet made an arrangement of the part of Werther for a baritone. Manon and Werther remain Massenet’s best-known operas. Werther’s song in praise of nature, O Nature, pleine de grâce (O Nature, full of grace), verbally echoes the Ave Maria in a suggestion of Romantic pantheism and there is much that is moving in Charlotte’s Air des lettres (Letters Aria) in the third act, in which Werther has his song from Ossian, Pourquoi me réveiller? (Why rouse me?).
The magistrate’s house, July
The magistrate is supervising his children’s practice of Christmas carols, exhorting them to better efforts by reminding them that their sister Charlotte can hear them. Johann and Schmidt, two of his cronies, call in on their way to the inn. He decides not to join them till Charlotte is ready for the ball that night. Everyone is looking forward to the ball; even Werther, they remark, is less melancholy. The magistrate approves of the young man, though his friends find him too serious; but all agree that Albert, who has been away, will be the right husband for Charlotte.
Johann and Schmidt go to the inn and Werther approaches the house, musing on the beauties of nature and listening with pleasure to the children’s voices as the magistrate continues with the rehearsal. Charlotte is ready for the ball, but the friends who are to call for her have not arrived, so she gives the children their supper. Werther is struck by the pleasant domestic scene. The magistrate introduces him to Charlotte and explains that she has taken the place of her dead mother in looking after the children. She welcomes Werther warmly.
Charlotte leaves for the ball and the magistrate, urged by Sophie, the next oldest, goes to the inn. When Albert arrives unexpectedly, he is pleased when Sophie assures him that he has not been forgotten and that they are busy with preparations for the wedding.
Werther brings Charlotte home after the ball and is unable to restrain his confession of love. Charlotte is about to leave him, without replying, when her father calls out the news of Albert’s return. Charlotte explains to Werther that she promised her mother that she would marry Albert and Werther is in despair.
The village square, September
It is Sunday. Johann and Schmidt go into the inn and Charlotte and Albert, who have been married for three months, prepare to go into church. Werther watches them, in agony at having lost Charlotte. Albert goes to him and sympathises with his grief and Werther assures him that he is calm after the storm and accepts Albert’s friendship.
Sophie enters full of joy and claims a dance from Werther at a forthcoming party; but when she leaves with Albert, Werther wonders if he can ever be happy again. Despite his words to Albert, he realises that he still loves Charlotte and must go away, but is unable to bring himself to do so. His resolution is further weakened when Charlotte appears. He speaks to her again of his love and she reminds him firmly that she is married to a man who loves her. She tells him he must go, but relents at his despair and agrees that he may come back at Christmas. Left alone, he thinks of suicide and when Sophie comes to call him he rushes away, telling her he will not come back. Hearing this, Albert realises that Werther still loves Charlotte.
Albert’s house, Christmas Eve
Charlotte is reading Werther’s letters, unable to destroy them, unable to forget him. Sophie tries to cheer her but realises that her sorrow has something to do with Werther. At the mention of his name, Charlotte is unable to restrain her tears. Sophie begs her to come to her old home and listen to the children’s carols. She leaves when Charlotte agrees and Charlotte prays for the strength to resist temptation.
Werther appears in the doorway pale and almost fainting. He has tried to stay away forever, but as the appointed day drew near was unable to keep himself from returning. Trying to keep calm Charlotte asks him to read his translations of the poems of Ossian to her and he does so. It is a lament, and Charlotte is deeply moved.
Werther is convinced that she loves him and although she tries to restrain him, he seizes her in his arms and kisses her. She half yields, but recovers and tells him that he must never see her again and runs from the room. Werther decides that the time has come for him to die.
Albert comes home and is puzzled by Charlotte’s obvious emotion. A note is brought from Werther, telling Albert that he is going on a journey and asking to borrow Albert’s pistols. Charlotte is terrified, but at Albert’s insistence she hands the pistols to the messenger.
Werther’s study, shortly afterwards
Charlotte finds Werther lying on the floor mortally wounded. She confesses that she has always loved him, but married Albert out of duty.
The children’s voices can be heard singing carols as Werther tells Charlotte where he wants to be buried and dies in her arms.
Wagner’s opera makes use of several leading motifs, a principle of which he made much greater use in his later music-dramas. Here the Dutchman himself is represented by the striking horn-call heard first in the overture, with its stormy string-writing. Part of the music of Senta’s second-act ballad is heard, her story of the Dutchman, a motif that represents her, and there are other elements that reappear as the story unfolds. The overture itself, in many ways a summary of the action, is an impressive concert piece. Vocal excerpts include the Dutchman’s Die Frist ist um (The time is here) and the Steersman’s song Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer (In thunder and storm from the far sea). The second act starts with the women spinning in Daland’s house, singing their lilting spinning-song Summ und Brumm (Hum and sing), echoing the sound of their work. Senta’s moving ballad follows. Choruses include the well-known Steuermann, lass die Wacht (Steersman, leave the watch).
The mysterious Dutchman is condemned to sail the seas with his ghostly crew until redeemed by the pure love of a woman. After a stormy overture Daland’s ship puts in to land, and a stranger ship puts in alongside, hailed by Daland’s steersman, but not answering his call or the invitations offered by the local people, who celebrate the return of their menfolk. The Dutchman himself, captain of the ghostly ship, allowed now, after seven more years, to land in his quest for release, asks Daland for hospitality, offering him rich reward and showing an interest in Senta, his daughter. In Daland’s house, where the women sit spinning, Senta has long been preoccupied by the story of the Dutchman and fascinated by his portrait. Erik, a huntsman, loves her and tells her his dream, in which he saw Daland bringing home a stranger. Senta, however, is still more preoccupied with her vision of the strange seafarer, whom her father now brings home. Senta’s love, it seems, will bring the Dutchman the redemption he seeks. He overhears Erik, however, reproaching Senta for her infidelity and resolves to leave her. As The Flying Dutchman sails out into the open sea, Senta, who has struggled free from Erik and those who seek to restrain her, leaps from the cliff in a pure act of love. The Dutchman’s ship and crew sink at once in the waves, and he and Senta are seen united for ever.
Der Rosenkavalier evokes a past Vienna in music of great poignancy and beauty, with Strauss, like Brahms, able to encompass moods of autumnal sadness, epitomised in the love and self-sacrifice of the 32-year-old Marschallin for the 17-year-old Octavian. Baron Ochs, who has a penchant for memorable waltzes, is a splendid comic figure, uncouth in manner and to be pitied, nevertheless, in his final discomfiture. The work is scored for a large orchestra and waltz sequences from the second and third acts are popular in the concert hall. Possible vocal excerpts include the Italian singer’s Di rigori armato (Sternly armed), rudely interrupted at the Marschallin’s levée by the Baron, the Marschallin’s poignant memories of her own earlier life and her arranged marriage, Da geht er hin (So there he goes), and her parting with Octavian at the end of the first act, Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding (Time is a thing of its own). The presentation of the silver rose in the second act brings a particularly moving moment, with Octavian’s hesitant Mir ist die Ehre widerfahren (To me has been given the honour). The young lovers are left together as the third act comes to a close, with Sophie wondering if love is a dream, Ist ein Traum, kann nicht wirklich sein (It is a dream, it cannot really be true).
The first act opens in the bedroom of the Marschallin where the young Octavian is kneeling by the Marschallin’s bed, from which she has not yet risen. Octavian, taking advantage of the absence of the Field-Marshal hunting, would like to prolong the moment, but must hide as a servant brings breakfast for the Princess. They hear the sound of someone approaching, and Octavian hides behind a screen. Instead of the Field-Marshal, whose return they had feared, it is Baron Ochs von Lerchenau, the Marschallin’s cousin, who eventually bursts in, while Octavian disguises himself as a maid, but is unable to escape the attentions of the Baron. The Baron seeks the Marschallin’s help in finding a Knight of the Rose to take the traditional token of intended marriage to Sophie von Faninal on his behalf. She proposes her cousin Octavian, Count Rofrano, as an emissary. There follows the Marschallin’s levée, attended by various people who attempt to enlist her support. When they have gone, she recalls her own early marriage and realises that Octavian will soon turn his attention to a younger woman. Octavian goes, and the Marschallin sends after him, then despatching her page to him with the silver rose, which he will know what to do with.
The second act opens in the Grand Hall of Herr von Faninal’s house. Sophie
awaits the arrival of the Knight of the Rose and is immediately attracted to Octavian, while repelled by the boorish manners of the Baron, who follows. Sophie’s aversion and her feelings for Octavian lead her to refuse marriage with the Baron, who is slightly hurt in an immediate duel with Octavian. The intriguers Valzacchi and Annina, employed by the Baron but annoyed at his meanness, now offer their services to Octavian, who sends Annina with a note to the Baron making an assignation with Mariandel, the identity he had assumed to escape from the Marschallin’s bedroom.
In the third act, set in an inn near Vienna, the assignation takes place, with the Baron now confronted by a series of staged apparitions, culminating in the appearance of Annina disguised as his abandoned wife. The Baron summons the police and matters reach a degree of complication that is solved only by the intervention of the Marschallin, who now unselfishly encourages the love of Sophie and Octavian.
Norma occupies a very particular place in operatic repertoire, a dramatic work of lyrical beauty, not least in the most famous of Norma’s arias, Casta diva (Chaste goddess), her first-act prayer to the moon. Oroveso calls the Druids to watch for the new moon in Ite sul colle, o Druidi (Go to the hills, O Druids) and in the second act he warns of Pollione’s possible successor, inveighing against Roman tyranny in Ah! del Tebro al giogo indegno (Ah! To the disgraceful yoke of Rome). Norma has notable duets with Adalgisa and with Pollione, revealing different aspects of her tragic character.
Oroveso seeks to rouse his countrymen to rebellion against the Romans. Pollione now confides in Flavio that he no longer loves Norma, in spite of the fact that, unknown to everyone, she has borne him two sons. Norma tries to prevent rebellion, to protect Pollione, prophesying the fall of Rome through its own internal weaknesses. Pollione persuades Adalgisa to run away to Rome with him. Norma, at home, knows that Pollione plans to leave her, but does not know the name of her rival. Adalgisa admits her infidelity to her people to Norma, who eventually understands that Adalgisa is the new object of Pollione’s affections. When Adalgisa realises the situation, she rejects Pollione.
Norma considers killing her sons and then asking Adalgisa to go with Pollione and be a mother to her children in her place. Adalgisa refuses to be disloyal to Norma, but goes to Pollione to recall him to his duty. He will not hear her, and Norma now calls for open revolt. Meanwhile Pollione, attempting to abduct Adalgisa, has been taken prisoner, and will be put to death. Norma offers in his place one who has broken faith with her people, herself. A funeral pyre is erected, which she mounts, joined in her final moments by Pollione.