Werther is surely one of opera's most tragic love stories: it culminates in three lives ruined, one ended in suicide and, in this bleak reading by English Touring Opera, another soon to finish, when a grief-stricken Charlotte tremulously turns the fatal pistol towards herself at curtain-fall. Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther pitted religion against Romanticism in a battle royal for the soul of young Germany, which Romanticism won: Werther became a cult hero, even a fashion icon, to generations of Europeans. Oliver Platt's reduction of Goethe's aesthetic manifesto to a kitchen sink drama (played throughout in the same shabby kitchen) gives us a broken love story as pitiable as it is ordinary, though it is a pity that Platt's directorial approach lacks any special insight into the philosophical content of Massenet's plot, which (in other hands) can make this such a shatteringly powerful opera.

Thus, this Werther feels like (stop me if you've heard this one before) an everyday tale of three average people trapped in the prim social conventions of the 1950s which gag and blind them all to their impending catastrophe until it is too late. While focusing on the domestic tragedy, Platt shies away from examining the religious roots of Charlotte's proud sense of duty, or the wildly self-indulgent, deliberately Romantic ecstasies of Werther's adoration. Platt's result is certainly sad, but sadly more prosaic than profound. Happily, however, there is nothing prosaic about the title role, and it's worth the entire ticket price just to hear Ed Ballard's magnificently sustained, sensitive, near-insane Werther. 

The static set holds our four instrumentalists (piano, violin, clarinet and cello) at its rear, but their inclusion doesn't contribute to our sense of what is happening on stage, giving a haphazard feel uncharacteristic of ETO's generally assured tone. The stage itself, strewn with toys and Formica furniture, looks fussy and messy: Oliver Townsend's design process is interestingly discussed in the programme, but its results are underwhelming. Lighting decisions are even harder to understand, patches of light not always connecting with singers effectively, or even at the right moment. Finally, despite the French theme of ETO's current season, and the rapturous beauty of the original French libretto by Blau, Milliet and Hartmann, Oliver Platt has chosen to use Norman Tucker's leaden-tongued English translation, which not only diminishes the magic, but makes each singer's job harder: "C'est moi, c'est moi" being far more sympathetic to project than Tucker's awkward "It is I".

Nevertheless, we are treated to some fine singing, above all from Ballard, who begins as a turgidly shy, almost Wodehousian anxious worshipper, but mutates into a brooding, psychotic obsessive who comes back from his exile almost as ready to kill Charlotte as to kill himself. Ballard's sustained power through Werther's languorous and challenging lines is a joy, while his ability to conjure ineffable softness and seasoned volume by turns is a delight. Ballard's chemistry with his Charlotte, Carolyn Dobbin, is satisfyingly sizzling, though Dobbin's Charlotte seems incapable of returning quite the same quality of passion: warmly maternal and determinedly conventional, this Charlotte is no fellow Romantic in disguise, but rather a woman who wishes this had happened to anyone else except her. Dobbin's dynamic stagecraft and mellifluous mezzo-soprano contribute hugely, but Charlotte's controlled persona saps her dramatic effect: despite the desperation of her last scene, I didn't find a tear nearing my eye.

Simon Wallfisch's beautifully sung, but stolid Albert also fails to tug successfully at the heartstrings: this is a character also experiencing significant emotional turmoil, but beyond some incipient moodiness, Albert seemed too disconnected from Charlotte or Werther for his predicament to feel vaguely moving. Lauren Zolezzi, on the other hand, is appropriately insensitive as Sophie, the emotionally impervious little sister who can't understand why everyone doesn't just cheer up, with her exquisite aria "Du gai soleil" picked out in gorgeous melodic detail. Michael Druiett is a bluff and avuncular Bailli, his "Vivat Bacchus" mercifully untranslated from its Latin and sounding almost edibly sumptuous. Iain Farrington conducts his own arrangement of Massenet's score from the piano, and while four instruments cannot match a full orchestra, the extent to which they can paint colour, mood and texture is impressive. A tendency to slow down made life occasionally hard for some singers, but rhythms were fixed on the move with heartening resilience. Overall, the beauty of Massenet's opera is absolutely there: this production just lacks Romantic punch.