Fidelio, Grand Theatre, Leeds
The Coronation of Poppea, King's Head, London

A charismatic, cross-dressing heroine brings tenderness and warmth to a meticulously humane 'Fidelio' by Opera North

Beethoven's Leonore is matchless in the operatic canon: a heroine of constancy and resourcefulness, a one-woman revolution in men's clothing.

Disguised as the prison guard Fidelio, her bravery and determination are apparent. But what of her fears? What of the calluses on her aristocratic hands? What of the deception and manipulation? Conceived for Scottish Opera and first seen in 1994, Tim Albery's Opera North production of Fidelio is meticulously humane, sympathetic to the little people in Leonore's grand drama and deft in its subtle exposure of her doubts and shame.

The production reunites Albery with conductor Richard Armstrong, whose tempi are beautifully judged throughout. The score is a startling mixture of high and low, domestic and heroic – contrasts that are echoed in designer Stewart Laing's neatly scrubbed, brightly painted 1950s prison warder's quarters, the faraway sublime vistas of Caspar David Friedrich forests and mountains, the colourless office of the venal Don Pizzaro and the chill dungeon where Florestan is dying.

Emma Bell is a charismatic, handsome Leonore. Seldom alone but always separate, she signals loneliness and desperation in her eyes, linking the hungry gratitude with which she kisses Marzelline's hand and the ardent prayer of "Komm, Hoffnung". It is a generous and tender performance.

Strong and light voices are well-balanced here, with Fflur Wyn's slender soprano gliding easily over the quartet, prim and pretty in Marzelline's opening aria. Joshua Ellicot's Jaquino is cleverly pitched, conversational in tone, bruised by the cuckoo in the nest. Jeremy White is particularly touching as Rocco, whose goodness as a father and complicity with Pizarro's regime are perhaps more representative of the human condition than the heroics of Leonore and Florestan. Andrew Foster-Williams brings lieder-like clarity to the jealous ravings of Don Pizarro, while Robert Winslade Anderson sings the role of Don Fernando with grace and poise. Steven Harrison's Florestan was the sole weak link in the second performance, beached and battered in his soliloquy.

As ever, I wondered how the marriage would recover, how Leonore would cope with returning to passivity and a supporting role. Meantime, Albery's bleak sequence of images point to a future quite at odds with the exultant closing chorus. From Opera North's orchestra, cast and stage management this was an enthralling reading of a work that still has so much to tell us, that nourishes, inspires and challenges.

Sliced down to a little over two hours, performed in the round and rescored for piano, double bass and saxophone, Alex Silverman and Mark Ravenhill's adaptation of The Coronation of Poppea plays fast and loose with the delicate skeleton of Monteverdi's score. The Prologue is the first thing to go, taking with it the figures of Fortune, Virtue and Cupid. The imperial staff is reduced to one, Adam Kowalczyk's Liberto, who doubles as Poppea's nurse, Arnalta. Further changes include the addition of an "intervention aria" by Michael Nyman, in which Rebecca Caine's blood-soaked Ottavia relates Tacitus's account of her own death and the murder of the courtesan who replaced her, adding a touch of vinegar to the eroticism of the closing duet.

Musically, these two numbers were the most attractive to me: the first because it was scored for the instruments it was played on, the second because its idling, sinuous lines can withstand more skinny-latte-with-a-shot-of-hazelnut-syrup jazz noodling than the rest of the work. Far from being free, Silverman's arrangement is more proscriptive than any improvised continuo accompaniment from theorbo or harpsichord. The best one can say of the saxophone is that there is a passing resemblance to the tone of a cornetto, like the tilt of a nose in a family photograph. But the tone of this realisation is more Caffè Nero than Emperor Nero, a dash of Shirley Horn here, a touch of Brad Mehldau there.

Vocally and dramatically, there's a lot of splashing around, only some of it coming from the blood-stained waters of the bath in the centre of Katie Bellman's set. As director and translator, Ravenhill has emphasised narrative over character. Caine offers the most focused performance, Jessica Walker as Nero the most interesting, partly because so much of that character is defined by the reactions of others. Zoë Bonner's Poppea is well sung but gives little sense of the steel behind her erotic career. Jassy Husk provides a touchingly dishevelled Drusilla, though quite how she's got her knickers into such a twist over David Sheppard's weak, brittle Ottone is hard to understand. Martin Nelson lends gravitas as Seneca, while Kowalczyk is tireless, in and out of drag.

'Fidelio' (0844 848 2706) to 13 May and touring. 'The Coronation of Poppea' (0207-478 0160) to 29 Jun

Next Week:

Anna Picard turns to the subtler dramas of Brahms and Schubert in Alexander Melnikov's Wigmore recital

Classical Choice

On Thursday, the London Handel Festival turns to Comus, Handel's 1745 setting of Milton's masque. Lawrence Cummings conducts at St George's, Hanover Square. Nicholas Collon conducts the Manchester Camerata in American Sounds, with music by Adams, Copland, Stravinsky and Nico Muhly, RNCM Concert Hall, Manchester, Sat.

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions