“Werther” has to be the most heart-wrenching opera ever created and it makes Puccini seem like a trip to the fairground complete with candy cane. It has not been performed in Hungary for 30 years. It is risky because the opera has the potential to fail disastrously as the lamentations of Werther and his hopeless lovesick situation could be irritating if he suffered alone.
It is the growing pain of Atala Schöck’s Charlotte, who in her own secret and gentle way also loves the lovelorn young man despite being married to Albert, that turns a novel into an opera.
This is the essence that makes the opera so compelling; all the characters have a nobility, a sensitivity and a likeability. There is no bad guy in this story, no twisted vengeance or arrogance to alienate the audience from any of the main protagonists.
Charlotte’s younger sister Sophie, ever optimistic, is given real depth by Mária Celeng with her soul-splitting voice. It is through these characters that we are drawn into the opera, directed flawlessly by János Szikora. The spiral downwards is matched by the seasons as the opera opens in summer and ends in a cruel winter blizzard.
It also touches on the unspoken sentiments that exist within so many people; What if I am with the wrong person? Why is timing such a deadly enemy when it comes to love?
Even if the outcome is not death, I love you, I only realised too late is as relevant today as it was when Massenet composed his opera.
The opera is based on Goethe’s epistolary novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther”, containing the lamentations of a lovelorn poet. It saw a rise in suicides in Germany among young men at the time, such was its arresting power. It is at once beautiful and dangerous to enter this world, a world of heart-tearing love and tragedy.
Critics of the opera say it is gloomy and self-obsessed; get over it already. It is like telling someone with severe depression to pull themselves together.
Hungary, once top of the suicide league in the early 1980s, should be a welcoming home for such an opera. It is hard to imagine Werther finding such a kindred spirit within the opera houses of Spain.
Although suicides have fallen in Hungary, they are still high on the European scale. Loneliness, isolation and a dark outlook on life may sound like sweeping generalisations but if Massenet’s opera was to find a sympathetic audience it surely would in this country.
How a life can change in an instant; as Charlotte’s fiancé, Albert, is away, she is to be escorted to the evening ball by Werther. This simple gesture has fatalistic consequences. Love at first sight is like a grenade exploding within; it is too late if this uncontrollable emotion takes hold, like a poison that will not stop.
Charlotte promised her dying mother to be with Albert. It is best for Werther if he can forget her.
But he is in the grip of this deadly vice. The savage pain as he sees Charlotte with Albert is tangible as his beautiful sad arias sound out. He hasn’t taken the fatal bullet yet but he is already dying.
Albert, played by Zsolt Haja, with true nobility tries to comfort Werther; he knows about Werther’s feelings but he genuinely feels for him. Werther in his assurances that he is over the heartbreak is told maybe he can find the happiness that is eluding him with Sophie.
Arturo Chacón-Cruz brings such emotion to Werther with the voice of absolute desolation and heartbreak stretching out into infinity. He can no more have Charlotte than possess the moon but with a voice such as his, anything seems within his grasp.
Massenet’s gentle yet ever spiralling musical score never overpowers the performers. By Act 3 the tragedy has escalated and enveloped surely the hardest of hearts in the Opera House.
Charlotte obsessing over Werther’s gloomy letters demonstrates acting of the finest to be seen in opera, together with a voice of such incredible range as she is lost in his love. The orchestra led by Michel Plasson take us with the characters on the journey from light into darkness and still further into the depths of despair, always in absolute synchronicity with the feelings and sentiments on stage.
The saddest heaviest notes are in the prelude to Act 4. This short stab in the heart of an act from beginning to end is such magnificence, from the opening swirling snowstorm Charlotte battles through to try to reach Werther to the tragic end where he dies in her arms. Even his beautiful paintings, soft watercolours of the summer, have morphed into a canvas streaked with blood.
The cruel contrast between the Christmas tree illuminated in gold behind Werther and Charlotte and their situation is emphasised by the floating notes of the children’s Christmas carols, which are distorted, twisted out of shape. This tragic love duet between dying Werther and heartbroken Charlotte is delicate and savage at once, bringing hope yet despair. Werther has spent his last moments on Earth with the one he loved more than life.
There are few people worth dying for and Atala Schöck’s Charlotte is one of those rarities.
Hungarian State Opera
Opera House, Andrássy út 22, District VI
Until Sunday November 8
Tickets and information: