Following on from last year’s Manon, and prior to Cendrillon at the end of the current season, the Royal Opera’s flurry of Massenet works has his finest opera at its centre.  

An appealing duo of stars – Rolando Villazón, in a welcome return to the house, and the superb French mezzo Sophie Koch – light up Benoît Jacquot’s otherwise lacklustre production of Werther, revived for the first time since 2004.

Villazón lacks the tragic intensity of Alfredo Kraus, Covent Garden’s first Werther of recent times, who was virtually peerless as the unhappy hero.  It’s hard to imagine anyone being influenced by Villazón’s portrayal into committing fashionable copy-cat suicide, as supposedly some smitten youngsters did when Goethe’s novel was published in the 1770s.  

In his romantic longings, Werther is a little too far along the continuum between mental health and insanity but Villazón just seems a bit sad most of the time. His familiar puppy-dog, lost boy charm lead to a very different sort of characterization, petulant and melancholy rather than imbued with any real tragic stature, but he’s affecting nonetheless.  It’s a careful and controlled performance, and it’s good to report that the voice seems in pretty good shape after recent troubles, if not the size it once was.

Koch is a near ideal Charlotte: sleek, beautiful, rich of voice and full of Gallic passion.  She rises to heights of emotion that leave Villazón’s almost hammy emoting on the nursery slopes. 

There’s a strong supporting cast – Audun Iverson as soppish husband Albert and Alain Vernhes as Charlotte’s fertile father impress and Eri Nakamura is a sweetly vulnerable Sophie, while Darren Jeffrey and Stuart Patterson make the most of the tipsy twosome, Johann and Schmidt.

Revived by Andrew Sinclair, Jacquot’s staging does little more than move the cast adeptly around Charles Edwards's slightly bland sets.  It’s all very traditional and under-directed, although Werther’s Chattertonesque death scene, contained within a grubby box which trucks slowly downstage, leaves us with the evening’s one iconic visual.

The orchestra under Antonio Pappano wallows in the voluptuousness of the orchestrations and in the final act, while narrowly missing the cutting anguish, approaches some of the depths of feeling in Massenet’s score.

The evening may not be as heartwrenching as it can be but this is still an enjoyable account of an opera that deserves to be seen more often.

- Simon Thomas