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Anything For Love: Massenet's 'Werther'

In 2001, U2 and lead singer Bono came up with a Grammy-winner called "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of." The title sounds a bit flip, but the song is deadly serious. And it shares a subject with the story of this week's opera, Jules Massenet's Werther.

Bono wrote the song after the apparent suicide of his close friend Michael Hutchence, singer of the band INXS. Bono says the lyrics represent a conversation with his friend that never actually happened — a sort of intervention Bono wishes had taken place before Hutchence's death.

The song's tough-minded sentiment ("You gotta stand up straight / Carry your own weight") dispels the long-held and strangely popular notion that suicide, especially in the name of love, is somehow a romantic, even noble thing to do.

It's hard to believe that the act itself could possibly seem romantic, and surely suicide is nothing but tragic for the people left behind. Still, the U2 song is the exception rather than the rule; the romantic portrayal of suicide seems far more prevalent in art and music than the more hard-edged approach Bono took to the subject.

That romantic notion has long proven irresistible in all kinds of dramatic entertainment, including Massenet's Werther — the tale of an idealistic young man who might have escaped a grim end if those who loved him had come to his side before he made his final, tragic decision, instead of afterward.

The opera is based on a 1774 novel by Goethe that was inspired by an actual event: the suicide of a young man who was in love with a married woman. The novel, called The Sorrows of Young Werther, was an early influence on the Romantic literary movement, and its wide popularity made Goethe an international celebrity.

Massenet's operatic version of the popular story was completed in 1887, but the Opera Comique in Paris turned it down, saying it was too depressing. The opera's premiere took place in Vienna in 1892, and it wasn't heard in Paris until the following year.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a production, from the Opera Bastille in Paris, that caused a sensation for reasons quite apart from opera itself. Tenor Rolando Villazon was scheduled to sing the title role, but was forced to pull out of the opening-night performance due to health trouble. He then fought through those problems and took to the stage later in the production's run. Since then, Villazon has undergone successful larynx surgery and says he's on the road to a full recovery.

In the Paris production, Villazon stars opposite mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as Charlotte, with Kent Nagano conducting.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

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