Werther returns to Prague's National Theatre

Massenet's opera was last at the on the local stage in the 1930s

Jules Massenet's opera Werther is returning to the National Theatre in Prague after almost 80 years. The new production will premiere June 7 and 9, 2018.

The opera was last performed in Prague from 1927 to 1939.

The current production, created by German theater director Willy Decker, originally premiered Jan. 14, 1996, at the Het Muziektheater (Nederlandse Opera) in Amsterdam, after which it went to the Oper Frankfurt, Opéra Lyon, Teatro dell'Opera in Rome and Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona.

The Prague production will be conducted by Petr Kofroň, the artistic director of the National Theatre Opera. The sets and costumes have been designed by Wolfgang Gusssmann. The role of Werther will be portrayed by Peter Berger and Richard Samek, while Charlotte will be portrayed by Veronika Hajnová, Štěpánka Pučálková and Michaela Zajmi.

Willy Decker is credited in the Prague production for his staging conception, while Stefan Heinrichs is credited as revival director.

Massenet's opera, a top work of the Romantic era, is loosely based on J. W. Goethe's 1774 epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. The book rapidly became very popular with young readers and a number of them even took the hero's example and committed suicide. This led to the book and the style of clothes the protagonist wore being banned for a time in some areas.

To this day, a group of suicides linked to one depicted in the media is known as the Werther effect.

The libretto focuses on Charlotte's inner conflict between her feelings of duty and love.

“Massenet's virtue is his faculty of working with leitmotifs on a wide symphonic basic,” Peter Berger, who performs in the title role of Werther, said in a press release. “He was able to alternate extremely melancholy, sentimental and lyrical moods with delicate dynamics, which have both a meditative and dramatic effect on me. What it more, Massenet understood and thoroughly depicted the psychology of the respective characters.” Werther contains one of the best-known tenor arias, Pourquoi me réveiller.

Massenet's compositional style in inspired in part by Richard Wagner and known for its colorful orchestration.

The set and costumes place the production in the late 19th century, the time when the opera was written.

Willy Decker's production explores the gap between the longings of an individual and social constraints — between freedom and restriction, hope and resignation.

Wolfgang Gussmann's abstract sets highlight the comical and dark romantic aspects of the work. The colors of yellow and blue, symbolizing Werther, contrast with the predominant gray, black and white hues.

Massenet started composing Werther in 1885 and finished it in 1887. It was at first rejected by the Paris Opéra-Comique for being too serious.

The Vienna Opera, though, asked the composer for a new work as a previous opera there had been quite successful. Werther received its premiere Feb. 16, 1892, in a German version translated by Max Kalbeck at the Imperial Theatre Hofoper.

The French-language premiere followed in Geneva on Dec. 27, 1892. The first performance in Paris was Jan. 16, 1893.

A Czechoslovak-West German co-production of a TV film of Werther was made in 1985, with Libor Pešek conducting the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra.

The next new National Theatre opera production will be Verdi's Nabucco, staged by José Cura and scheduled to premiere June 28 and 29, 2018.

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