Werther, Royal Opera House, London<br></br>The Full Monteverdi, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Three cheers for the cheap seats - shame about the cut-price opera
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The Independent Culture

The Covent Garden season has started for the second time in a flurry of positive publicity for the Travelex £10 Mondays. Over 12,000 applications for the first 100 £10 stalls seats were received, and the optimistic assumption of those behind this peppy audience development project is that the majority of the lucky ticket holders for the opening night of Benoit Jacquot's new production of Werther were novices. During the first interval one jolly member of the Travelex team warmly welcomed me to the Royal Opera House and exhorted me to pay it a second visit sometime, which I will. Question is, will the real Travelex virgins? Will they be sufficiently bowled over by Werther to swallow the normal prices for the same seats? (£50 for "difficult" repertoire, £175 for bodice-rippers.) Or even the normal prices for other seats? I hope so, but it is regrettable that such a valuable scheme should have been launched with a production that does diddly-squat to challenge the notion of opera as a museum art.

Not since we covered inertia in physics have I seen something quite as lifeless as Jacquot's Werther. From Charles Edwards's atypically awkward lighting and frigid set designs, to Antonio Pappano's curiously disengaged and occasionally brusque reading of the score, this is a disappointing production. Jacquot's direction, though apparently of the naturalistic school, is as atrophied as that of any high-concept guru, albeit minus an actual concept. Singers are moved like chess pieces from spot to spot; their characters left horribly undeveloped.

In a stronger work this might not be so problematic. But Massenet's Werther is a slappable character when handled badly. Without a sense of a formerly dignified, independent spirit rendered undignified and dependent by love, we have no reason to believe his behaviour is specific to this situation. Without that specificity, he is nothing more than a self-indulgent pest. It follows then that without a lead of phenomenal subtlety, agility and intelligence, pathos becomes bathos. Sadly, Marcelo Alvarez's dramatic talent is inversely proportionate to his vocal talent and though Jacquot only requires him to do three things - stagger to the front of the stage, roll his eyes heavenward, and stagger back again - these three moves are executed with all the grace and elegance of The Banana Splits. Alvarez currently wears his own body as though it were a particularly perplexing costume, which rather distracts from singing that is gloriously limber and well-nourished of tone - most especially in Act IV - but is as idiomatic as a cornershop baguette.

It is indeed a curious Werther where the relationship between Schmidt (Gilles Ragon) and Johann (Darren Jeffrey) is more involving than that between the hero and his beloved. As poor, dear Charlotte - the real victim of Massenet's opera, though not of Goethe's novel - Ruxandra Donose strains against the static nature of Jacquot's production. Donose has identified the passion and reserve in Charlotte's character, and traces her journey from conscientious girlhood to compromised womanhood with delicacy; giving her Act III outburst terrible depth and dramatic tension. Her relationships with Sophie and her father - Sally Matthews and Jonathan Veira, two faultlessly sympathetic performances - are well drawn, as is that with the chillingly remote Albert (Ludovic Tézier), but there is no spark between Donose and Alvarez. If all you want is heroic singing in pretty costumes, Werther will do the trick. Otherwise, leave well alone. Even for a tenner. Opera at its best is much, much more than this.

For sexual and intellectual spark, I Fagiolini's gauchely titled The Full Monteverdi - performed in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of Inventions, the South Bank's Early Music weekend - was a far better source. Directed by John La Bouchardière, this extraordinary experiment in performance style saw I Fagiolini's six singers paired with six (silent) actors as six incognito couples reaching the bitter ends of their love affairs while seated in a café. Less in the round than in the thick of it, these shockingly intimate a capella "conversations" took place at tables to our left, our right, in front of us and behind. Should you have been so inclined, you could count the pores on the nose of the nearest performer. Instead, we were torn between the voyeuristic horror of watching soprano Anna Crookes's uninhibited agony in Anima dolorosa che vivendo and the delirium of hearing Monteverdi's harmonies in a form of surround sound that no machine could reproduce.

So does his music suit this treatment? Absolutely. The stuttering, fumbling, ecstatic repetitions of "Ai bocca! Ai lingua! Ai baci!" in Si ch'io vorrei morire cry out for the hair-grabbing, lip-biting, get-a-room punctuation of intense physical contact. Never has the Fourth Book of Madrigals sounded more personal, more radical, more harrowing. For the actors whose job it was to listen, support and react, The Full Monteverdi must have been a remarkable experience. For singers drawn from London's coolly professional collegiate pool of Early Music specialists, it will likely have been defining. Not all of them are natural actors, but La Bouchardière has created characters - the man repressed by decades in the City, the woman whose identity is fragmenting before our eyes, the man who knows his girlfriend is beyond his league and cannot forgive her for it - that play to each performer's strengths. The singing is, in one word, matchless. I cannot urge you strongly enough to watch out for any repeat performances across the country and go.

'Werther': Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) to 5 October