The rapture of restraint Werther, Royal Opera House, London

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The Independent Culture

The season of goodwill has arrived early at the Royal Opera House.

The season of goodwill has arrived early at the Royal Opera House. Not just for Massenet's tragic hero Werther, who dies for love on Christmas Eve, but for the first 100 punters to benefit from the Travelex £10 Mondays scheme. A tenor for a tenner. That's not just a bargain; that's a giveaway when the tenor in question is Marcelo Alvarez, probably the best in the world right now.

Alvarez started late and matured quickly. If ever a beautiful voice made up for lost time, this is it. The French style, the subtle inflection of the language, may as yet be a little alien to him, but the singing is fabulous. "My whole being cares for nothing but you," he implores, and we all of us - not just Charlotte - feel the heat of his ardour. But here is a tenor who will always find nuance in rapture, and rapture in restraint.

His quiet singing was, as ever, a joy, thanks to his ability to support the sound on barely a breath and then let it melt away like his dreams. These are the enticements that separate the artists from the singers, the purveyors of bel canto from the merchants of can belto. "Overwhelm me with your fragrance," he sings, on his entrance. Massenet obliges, and so does he. But without preciousness. And because he voices feelings that others in this opera dare not even think, there is something overwhelming about the delivery of his final "Pourquoi me reveiller?", in which private rumination becomes public declaration. It brought the house down. But still it could not unlock Charlotte's fatal inhibitions. And guilt.

That's the overriding tension in this opera - the surface of restraint that tells you that nobody really says what they mean or acts on how they feel. A tragedy of manners. The French film director Benoît Jacquot catches the fatal contradiction from the first frame - sorry, scene: a sunny rural enclave, simple yet picturesque. The curtain rises in silence but the weighty opening chords of Massenet's prelude portend tragedy. What you see is not what you hear.

The conductor, Antonio Pappano, too, is mindful of these stark contradictions. That which is light and airy and buoyant (and the refulgent orchestral playing most certainly is) quickly darkens like a summer storm. The torment at the heart of the drama and the music is Werther's. And how dramatically Jacquot isolates him at the close of Act I as the black front cloth cuts him off from this poetic dream-world, and his cry "Married to another!" is effectively caught in his throat.

Jacquot's skill is in keeping his performers filmically "contained". There is much stillness. The body language in Act II between Charlotte and her new husband - the dullard Albert (whom the excellent French baritone Ludovic Tézier makes almost interesting) - tells you everything. He speaks of bliss, she speaks of gratitude, and their bodies of a new ice age. The designer Charles Edwards compounds the sweetness and light with open skies and autumn leaves, but for Charlotte's emotional imprisonment in Act III, he comes up with a beautiful but frigid Vermeer-like image. Again, chaste image, impassioned music. Though her back is turned to us as if to avoid our gaze, we still feel Charlotte's loneliness. Ruxandra Donose, looking and sounding beautiful, conveys this inwardness, this repressed desire, to perfection. Its release - too late - in the final scene is the more pitiful for it.

And so the snow falls, Werther lies dying, and Jacquot and Edwards pull off the stage equivalent of a tracking shot to bring us indecently close to the lovers' precious moments of intimacy. Christmas cheer pointedly never arrives in this opera. Except for those who got in for £10.

To 5 October (020-7304 4000)

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