The mother is dying. The family is mourning. Years are passing.
ACT ONE – THE WARDEN’S HOUSE
Wetzlar, Germany, early July. The warden, a widower with children, is rehearsing Christmas carols with them on a warm summer afternoon. Since the death of his wife, his eldest daughter Charlotte has been caring for the family. Two of his friends stop by and discuss the young poet Werther who will accompany Charlotte to the ball that evening. They also ask about Charlotte’s absent fiancé Albert. After they leave, Werther arrives, dreaming of the beauty of nature. Charlotte returns, dressed for the ball, and Werther watches her as she gives the children treats and leaves them in the care of Sophie, her fifteen-year-old sister. Deeply touched by this idyllic scene, Werther leaves with Charlotte. The warden leaves to join his friends, and Sophie is left alone. She is surprised by the arrival of Albert, who has returned after a long absence. They cheerfully discuss his upcoming wedding to Charlotte.
In the moonlight, Charlotte and Werther return to the warden’s house. Werther admires Charlotte’s beauty and her devotion to family; she recalls her mother. Werther passionately declares his love for her, and just as they are about to kiss, the warden shouts that Albert is back. The spell is broken. Charlotte admits that she promised her dying mother that she would marry Albert. Werther is devastated.
ACT TWO – LINDENS
It is late September and the village is celebrating the priest’s 50th wedding anniversary. Charlotte and Albert have been married for three months. Werther remains their friend but is troubled by the realization that Charlotte belongs to another man. Albert tells him that he understands why Werther is so depressed; he knows what it would be like to lose her. Werther assures him that he only feels friendship towards them. Sophie enters and invites Werther to dance, but he successfully avoids her. When Charlotte shows up, he can’t help but tell her about his love and recalls their first meeting. Charlotte reminds him of the responsibilities she has as a wife and tells him that, for their own good, Werther must leave town and not return until Christmas. Werther succumbs to despair and contemplates suicide. Sophie returns to invite him to the party, but he abruptly replies that he is leaving forever and hurries outside, leaving her in tears. When Sophie relays the news, Albert realizes that Werther is still in love with Charlotte. The marriage anniversary celebration begins.
ACT THREE – ALBERT’S HOUSE
Christmas Eve. Charlotte obsessively rereads Werther’s letters, admitting to herself that she still loves him as much as he loves her. Sophie comes and tries to cheer her up, but Charlotte succumbs to despair. Together they remember how they used to play the piano and read poetry. Werther appears, telling Charlotte that he is still in love with her and that she must admit that she loves him. He becomes unrestrained and wild, which frightens her, leaving her torn between surrender and flight. They fight, and then he kisses her. She panics and runs out of the room, telling him that they will never see each other again. Werther tells her that she has sentenced him to death and leaves. Albert returns, knowing that Werther has returned. As he is interrogating Charlotte, the maid gives him Werther’s message: he is going on a long journey and wants to borrow Albert’s guns. Albert orders his wife to give them to him. As soon as Albert has left the room, Charlotte rushes to save Werther.
Charlotte finds the mortally wounded Werther in his room. He asks her not to call for help, happy to finally be with her. She declares that she has loved him since their first meeting. Werther dies, and children’s Christmas carols are heard outside.