It’s one of French opera’s historical oddities that Jules Massenet, one of its most opulent orchestrators, should have written so much for the Opéra-Comique, traditionally the home of smaller scale productions than those at its neighbour the Opéra de Paris. Werther, based on one of Goethe’s most famous works, is as orchestrally weighty as they come and eschews the Opéra-Comique’s usual spoken dialogue, but its theme is intimate: a simple story of a young man who commits suicide because the woman he loves (and who loves him) has married another man.

Juan Diego Flórez (Werther) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Juan Diego Flórez (Werther)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

The contrast between density of music and intimacy of theme creates challenges for a conductor. At the helm of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in last night’s revival of Benoît Jacquot’s 2004 production, Edward Gardner went for the full-on late Romantic sweep at every available moment, with a rich string sound, horns and brass that would do a Wagner opera proud, woodwinds solos well to the fore. It was all thrilling stuff, but that level of sound coming out of the pit inevitably risked swamping the soloists. Most of the time, Gardner was on the right side of those risks – but not always.

Juan Diego Flórez is one of the most celebrated tenors in the world in lighter repertoire: the title role of Werther is a step up in terms of weight of voice required; Flórez has sung the role in Zurich, but Covent Garden is a far bigger stage. Doubts about his ability to take the role on were dispelled: his French diction is excellent, his phrasing confident and romantic, the basic timbre less rounded than some but still attractive. Most of all, his voice embraced the drama of his character. Werther has just one outstanding aria, the Act 3 “Pourquoi me réveiller”. In many productions, the action stops, the tenor does his big spectacular and we can now get on with the rest of the opera: here, Flórez eschewed such tenor machismo and made the aria flow naturally from the scene that preceded it, with Charlotte looking on all the time. It’s a detail – but a satisfying one.

Juan Diego Flórez (Werther), Isabel Leonard (Charlotte) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Juan Diego Flórez (Werther), Isabel Leonard (Charlotte)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Isabel Leonard made a confident Royal Opera debut as Charlotte. The role doesn’t come into its own until Act 3, when Charlotte can no longer cope with being dutiful and gives vent to her true feelings: Leonard gave us plenty of passion and creamily smooth sound without going harsh at the top or fading at the bottom, although I could have wished for clearer French enunciation. However, both Leonard and Flórez were sometimes submerged under an orchestra in full flood.

Michael Mofidian (Johann), Vincent Ordonneau (Schmidt) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Michael Mofidian (Johann), Vincent Ordonneau (Schmidt)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Jacquot’s staging is somewhat minimalist: there’s little to complain about because there’s not that much on stage at all. That throws the onus on the singers to create the sense of atmosphere with their character acting and, under the revival direction of Andrew Sinclair, results were mixed, especially in Acts 1 and 2. All three of our principals, Flórez, Leonard and Jacques Imbrailo as Albert, sang their roles with passion and conviction. None of the three gave us body language to match, Leonard and Imbrailo rather static, Flórez resorting too often to a mannered throw back of the head and outstretching of the arms to portray anguish. The supporting cast fared better: Heather Engebretson, a fine Sophie in the 2016 revival, was convincing, with a voice that’s acquired more heft in the intervening years, while Alastair Miles, Vincent Ordonneau and Michael Mofidian entertained us as Le Bailli (the girls’ father) and the boozers Schmidt and Johann.

Heather Engebretson (Sophie) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Heather Engebretson (Sophie)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

In sum, an evening full of musical delights – indeed, something of an eye-opener as to how Wagnerian Massenet’s score can sound – but which feels too long as a piece of drama, needing the setting to be more atmospheric and the chemistry between characters to be as visible as it is audible.

***11