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