The worst thing about the pagan festival known as “Christmas” — as opposed to the Christian religious holiday known as Christmas — is not simply having your pocket picked by retailers who claim it’s your patriotic duty to support them from Thanksgiving through New Year’s. Nor is it the dark, gloomy weather; we know the light will start coming back soon, even if the beach is still months away.
It’s the music. Music everywhere, blaring at you from radios, public buildings, shopping malls. Not just “Jingle Bells” but “White Christmas,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and the whole damn Nutcracker ballet. If I hear the “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy” one more time I’m going to enlist the entire post-DADT army to put her in the ground once and for all. And as for Handel’s Messiah, please save that for Easter.
Operatically, we’ll always have La Boheme, with its crackerjack Cafe Momus second act. But if you’re seeking something a little different this Noel, put on Massenet’s Werther. If you already know it, you’ll know why I’m recommending it. If you don’t, please read on.
Werther, based on the famous Goethe novel that had disappointed swains killing themselves all over central Europe in the late 18th century, ends with the suicide of the title character on Christmas Eve, while young children joyously celebrate the coming of the Savior just outside the death chamber. But wait — it gets better! In this, his greatest opera, the normally mediocre Massenet surpassed himself with a score of such radiant beauty that it continues to puzzle me why this opera (like Puccini’s La rondine, another guilty pleasure) is not more beloved.
Let posterity sort that out. For now, sit back with a fine glass of cordial and allow some of the most passionate love music ever composed wash over you. As for the plot, it’s hard to get too agitated about Werther and his sorrows: he’s a callow Everyfool who falls in love with the wrong woman (in this case, because she’s engaged to another) and can’t figure a way out short of using a gun on himself; had he just waited it out, he’d have found another Charlotte somewhere along the road to Weimar.
But that young love — oh, what a beautiful, painful, and passionate thing it is. And while Werther’s tragedy may be ironically juxtaposed with Christmas for dramatic effect, isn’t that what the true spirit of Christmas is all about — love?
In the meantime, you can take your “Silver Bells” and . . .