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Opera Abbreviated Podcast: Werther

The Metropolitan Opera presents a new production of Jules Massenet's Werther live in HD in cinemas around the world, Saturday March 15 at 1 p.m.

Do you remember the commercials with the kindly Grandpa dandling a bonny three-year old and feeding him butterscotch candy? Werther's is a wonderful candy popular hereabouts, and who doesn't love a sweet Grandpa?

Werther is Massenet's French opera is based on a German novella by Goethe, Die leiden des jungen Werther.

Goethe's novella was a sensation. Young men all over Germany began to commit suicide over real and imagined love affairs, so morbidly glamorous did Goethe's hero become.

The Sorrows of Young Werther is a German story set in Germany by the inventor of romanticism singing in French to a score written for the Paris opera.

This being opera, Paris rejected this German-French concoction. The Memories of the Franco Prussian war were too green.

Jules Massenet's Werther saw the light of day in Vienna in 1892, sung back in German (still with me?). But let's stick to French and to pronunciation Vair-TAIR.

This opera of unrequited love resulting in suicide got off to a slow start in America. I first saw Werther before many of you were born. It was revived for the sensational Italian tenor Franco Corelli. His French was lousy but his voice was ever tremendous and didn't he look great in the tight pants?

"I for my part have but little faith in the ultimate popularity of Werther. At times it is just a bit too fine for the masses, and again it is a trifle tiresome for all classes of opera goers."

Thus said the critic of the New York Herald in 1894, after the sad poet was introduced to New York. 

It was neglected until 1909 when it was relegated to The New Theater (long gone) not the Metropolitan Opera House 30 blocks downtown. Werther attained smash hit status in the states only in 1971, when sung by Corelli and a Viennese mezzo, Christa Ludwig.

Werther has been called sugary and sentimental. It is neither. It stays to right side of sentiment. The music is riveting, and the emotions honest. Massenet has put away the frivolity of Manon, his biggest hit, in favor of the sober and sincere.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.