Massenet’s Werther in Freiburg

Freiburg im Breisgau is a pleasant university city at the edge of the Black Forest in the southwest corner of Germany, near the borders with France and Switzerland.

In other parts of Germany, Freiburg is envied for its relatively mild climate, since the daily weather maps in the newspapers and on television often show Freiburg as being a degree or two warmer than any other German city.

Theater Freiburg

The opera I saw at the city theater in Freiburg was Werther by Jules Massenet (1842-1912), which I have also seen in Würzburg, Darmstadt, Frankfurt and Brussels.

This is a French opera based on the best-selling German novel of the 18th century, The Sorrows of Young Werther, by none other than Johann Wolfgang Goethe, or von Goethe, as he was known after being elevated to the aristocracy on his 50th birthday. (Thomas Mann made an oblique reference to this when he introduced the protagonist of Death in Venice as “Gustav Aschenbach or von Aschenbach, as he was officially known after his 50th birthday”.)

Goethe was only 25 when he wrote Werther, so he was only half way to getting the ‘von’ in his name, and some passages in the book suggest that he felt discriminated against as a non-aristocratic intellectual.

The orchestra tuning up for the performance of Massenet’s Werther

The fine Freiburg production of Werther took the opera out of the 18th century and planted it firmly in the 21st, with modern apartment blocks in the background and a modern children’s playground in the center of the stage. When Werther shot himself at the end, out of desperation because he was hopelessly in love with someone else’s wife, he did so at the top of the slide, and his blood gradually trickled down the slide as he sang his final duet with his beloved but unattainable Charlotte.

The young tenor Dong Won Kim (no relation to the filmmaker, as far as I know) put in a fine performance as Werther. Anja Jung was a somewhat matronly Charlotte, and Lini Gong nearly stole the show as the younger sister Sophie, who could have been Werther’s salvation if he had been a bit less obsessive.

Theater Freiburg

Like many other city theaters in Germany, this one was founded at the beginning of the twentieth century. The building was inaugurated in 1910. It was badly damaged by bombs during the Second World War, but was re-built afterwards in more or less its original form.

Seating in the Freiburg Theater

The large hall is used for operas and for larger drama productions. There are also three smaller halls for other performances.

Winterer Foyer in the Theater Freiburg

Half an hour before each opera performance, one of the dramaturges gives a brief introductory talk here in the Winterer Foyer, at the level of the first balcony.

Banners on the theater, 2007

These banners on the front of the theater are all quotations from a resolution passed by the Freiburg City Assembly on January 30, 2007, asserting that Freiburg understands itself as a cultural city and intends to further develop itself as a city of the arts.

The reason for displaying these quotations is that a mere two months later the city council proposed drastic budget cuts for all cultural institutions in Freiburg, including the museums and the theater.

At the end of the performance of Massenet’s Werther, the baritone Matthias Flohr interrupted the final applause to read out a statement urging people to sign a petition opposing these budget cuts, which many audience members did on the way out.

Freiburg was at that time the largest German city to have elected a member of the Green Party as its mayor. (That was Dieter Salomon, who was mayor of Freiburg from 2002 to 2018.) My impression in 2007 was that “having a Green mayor is highly beneficial for the central issues of city planning, transportation policy, pollution control, ecology and regenerative energy use — but apparently not so beneficial for the city’s embattled cultural institutions.”

As of 2018 the Freiburg Theater is still going strong, so apparently all those signatures had the desired effect.

My photos in this post are from 2007. I revised the text in 2018.

See also: Massenet’s Werther in Brussels.

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