“What a horrid little monster!” wrote W. H. Auden of Werther, the eponymous hero of Goethe’s novella, The Sorrows of Young Werther. “Living in the twentieth century, not the eighteenth, and knowing, as most of his contemporaries did not, Goethe’s later work, Werther can still fascinate us, but in a very different way,” Auden explained in his “Foreword” to the book. “To us it reads not as a tragic love story, but as a masterly and devastating portrait of a complete egoist, a spoiled brat, incapable of love because he cares for nobody and nothing but himself and having his way at whatever the cost to others.”
Though Auden — an opera lover and librettist himself — was not writing about the hero of Massenet’s opera, but about the novella on which the opera is based, there is no reason to think he would change his harsh words in any significant way if he commented on the operatic version. Nor would Auden be the first critic who seems to be decidedly out of charity with Goethe’s and Massenet’s Romantic hero.
George Bernard Shaw was far from being London’s biggest fan of French opera, but after seeing Werther at Covent Garden in 1894 he wrote a perhaps surprisingly favorable review of the work. Even so, Shaw could not resist adding the thought that Massenet “succeeded in keeping up the interest of a libretto consisting of four acts of a lovelorn tenor who has only two active moments, one when he tries to ravish a kiss from the fair [Charlotte], and the other when he shoots himself behind the scenes.”
Both men miss the point of Werther. One reason his story caused such a furor throughout Europe when Goethe’s book was published in 1774, and that Massenet’s opera retains a solid place in the repertoire over a century after its premier, is because we all recognize a part of ourselves in Werther. It is likely to be a part of ourselves that intrigues us, but which we are not really comfortable dealing with — either because we indulge our inner Werther too much, or we try to freeze him out entirely. Either action robs our lives of completeness, richness and meaning.
If Werther was as repellant as Auden describes him to be Charlotte would not have fallen in love with him instantly (as she confesses to him in the last act), nor would her father (the Bailiff) and all the children find him so charming. In fact, the worse thing anyone in the opera says about Werther is that he is somewhat melancholy and that he is “not much a one for his food.”
As soon as Werther steps on stage Massenet makes sure the audience falls under his spell as completely as Charlotte will a few moments later. He stands for a moment, looking at Charlotte’s home, and sings, “I know not if I’m awake or still dreaming; everything around me seems like Paradise…Everything attracts and charms me.” The wonder he feels, his total oneness with Nature, his gratitude for the beauty all around him, his absorption in that very moment — it is all set to ravishingly beautiful music. There is an innocence to it that cannot help but strike the listener as somehow profound. At that moment Werther is in touch with something very precious, and the result is instantly appealing.
In Werther’s presence we see things we would be likely to skip over as we race through our daily routine. When we head for the subway, our minds already dealing with what is waiting for us at work, we’re likely to not notice the way the sunlight filters through tree leaves, creating a whole palette of different hues of the color green. We are probably blind to the soft smile on the face of the elderly woman as she looks at a young couple, gazing raptly into each other’s eyes. Mortgages, taxes and providing shoes for the children often have a way of putting blinders on us. If we are not careful, dealing with the necessities of life can easily turn into a numbing, soulless routine before we are aware of what has happened. Werther reminds us that life is infinite, and our personal universe can be much richer and more rewarding if we allow it to be.
This is similar to the meaning of The Fool in the Tarot deck. “The Fool represents true innocence, a kind of perfect state of joy and freedom, a feeling of being one with the spirit of life at all times. His innocence makes him a person with no past, and therefore an infinite future. Every moment is a new starting point,” writes Rachel Pollack in Seventy-eight Degrees of Wisdom. “The Fool teaches us that life is simply a continuous dance of experience. But most of us cannot maintain even brief moments of such spontaneity and freedom. Due to fears, conditioning, and simply the very real problems of daily life, we necessarily allow our egos to isolate us from experience. Yet within us we can sense, dimly, the possibility of freedom, and therefore we call this vague feeling of loss a ‘fall’ from innocence.”
In our society this innocence and depth of feeling is often relegated to artists – or to children; people whom we assume are “freer” in some way because they are spared having to deal with “reality.” It is acceptable for a four year old at the beach to jump up and down, filled with the energy and excitement of the sun, the water, the sheer joy and beauty of existing in that moment. But a forty year old doing that?
This is not to suggest that adults should abandon their hard-won maturity and behave childishly. Dancing blithely through a universe of endless possibilities might seem the most absurdly impractical way to live, to say nothing of being reckless. After all, potential is dandy, but the real reward is in turning that potential into concrete reality. Living only in the world of potential is as unfulfilling as living a life consisting of only unfeeling, deadening routine. Allowing our inner Werther to rule us leads to tragedy — as surely as it leads Werther in the opera to his death, which is why Werther is a cautionary tale. But ignoring our inner Werther leads to a life of sterility and joylessness, a life without hope or change. At the beginning of Act Three Charlotte laments, “Since he left, everything, despite myself, is wearisome,” and her sister Sophie sings, “All the faces here have become dejected since Werther fled away.”
“When we live fully we take a position that holds us constantly in a state of sustaining paradoxes in the play of the opposites,” writes John Weir Perry.
The tarot Fool can start us on this archetypal journey toward wisdom and wholeness. “Herman Melville, in Moby Dick, warned his readers not to take even a step outside the ordinary path laid out for you by society. You might not get back again,” notes Pollack. “And yet, for those willing to take the chance, the leap can bring joy, adventure, and finally, for those with the courage to keep going when the wonderland becomes more fearsome than joyous, the leap can bring knowledge, peace, and liberation.”
This article originally appeared in the Metropolitan Opera Playbill during the 2003-04 season.