Most opera thrives on the grand scale or about great events, but not Massenet's Werther. There are no palaces, gods, destitution, wars, vendettas or even gaming tables: just a comfortably off middle class young man who has fallen in love with an unattainable woman and allows his unrequited passion to take such a grip on him that he commits suicide. The tragic progress of Werther's increasingly unhinged state and its effect on Charlotte, the object of his affections, make for one of the most intimate of operas.

Vittorio Grigolo (Werther) and Joyce DiDonato (Charlotte) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Vittorio Grigolo (Werther) and Joyce DiDonato (Charlotte)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

There are more than two characters in Werther, of course – the opera was written for belle époque Paris, after all – but it is the two principals who count, and in this revival of Benoît Jacquot's 2004 production, the Royal Opera have cast two of the world's biggest current stars: Vittorio Grigolo and Joyce Di Donato. Both voices were in fine form.

Vittorio Grigolo (Werther) and Heather Engebretson (Sophie) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Vittorio Grigolo (Werther) and Heather Engebretson (Sophie)
© ROH | Bill Cooper
Grigolo's tenor has an appealing combination of clarity, openness and warmth. There's never any doubt that a phrase will be well turned with any high notes hit cleanly. Technically, Grigolo is highly impressive when it's time for the pianissimi or fine dynamic control. His matinée idol looks make him thoroughly credible as the youthful poet, and if I'm going to nit pick, the one imperfection to point out is in his acting: he convinces completely when playing the ardent lover, less so as the desperate suicide.

DiDonato's creamy-smooth mezzo is totally capable of anything that Massenet can throw at it and she sings Charlotte with an assurance that belies the fact that this is the first time she has done so on stage (she sang the role in concert in Paris in April). Timbre, dynamics and phrasing are all wonderful, but it's a very difficult role to characterise: Charlotte has to combine being the epitome of propriety and adherence to duty on the outside with repressed inner passions on the inside, allowing these to burst through to the surface only in the last act. DiDonato did a decent job of making so conflicted a character seem real, and she and Grigolo had good chemistry between them, but I don't know that I ever really suspended disbelief.

François Piolino (Schmidt) and Yuriy Yurchuk (Johann) © ROH | Bill Cooper
François Piolino (Schmidt) and Yuriy Yurchuk (Johann)
© ROH | Bill Cooper
The dramatic substance of Werther may be intimate, but Massenet's score certainly isn't, containing generous helpings of late romantic lushness. Antonio Pappano brought some fine playing from the Royal Opera orchestra to bring us the orchestral colour and the romantic sweep of the piece. There were several well rendered instances of the Wagnerian trick (much emulated in film music) of letting the audience hear what's going to happen in the music slightly before the events actually happen on stage.

The lesser roles in Werther are not going to be make-or-break for the performance, but it doesn't hurt to have them up to a quality. In her first substantial role for the Royal Opera, Heather Engebretson made a notable impression as Sophie, acting the girlishness nicely as well as giving us a bright clear soprano. Soubrette roles beckon, I'm sure. Singing the ever-understanding husband Albert, David Bižić's baritone was as solid and dependable as the character he portrays. François Piolino and Yuriy Yurchuk entertained with gusto as the two drinking buddies in the comic relief episode at the start of Act II.

Act II, <i>Werther</i> © ROH | Bill Cooper
Act II, Werther
© ROH | Bill Cooper
Charles Edwards sets are easy on the eye (I particularly like the Act II promenade with its stone steps and acute perspective) and frame the action well; revival director Andrew Sinclair handles the action effectively: the scenes of domestic bliss in Act I, when Charlotte is being mummy to her gaggle of younger siblings, were nicely poignant. 

This production of this opera didn't do enough to really grab me with the tragedy of Werther's short life. But the orchestral playing is excellent, the production is highly competent all round and there are two great singers in the lead roles. If you're a Massenet fan, it's well worth catching.