Heart of Darkness, Linbury Studio, London
The Queen of Spades, Grand Theatre, Leeds

Tarik O'Regan's Conrad adaptation is an audacious, handsome debut, while a Tchaikovsky opera is reinvigorated by an older, hypersexual Countess

Meticulously faithful to Joseph Conrad's novella, Tarik O'Regan's Heart of Darkness confirms the unshakeable influence of Benjamin Britten on British opera.

Where Britten had the Atlantic, O'Regan has the Congo, with accents drawn from local instruments translated as figures for harp and guitar. In the cleanness of his word-setting, the economy of the orchestration and the cool timbres of alto flute and celesta, there are land-locked echoes of The Turn of the Screw, while the framing device – Conrad's own – recalls Billy Budd. In place of a sea shanty, there's a whirling celebration of the arrival of a chest of rivets. But where Billy Budd's tenor narrator is wracked with poetic regret, O'Regan's Marlow (Alan Oke) is sober, understated.

The craftsmanship of this first opera is indubitable, the horror muted by curatorial delicacy. Where Francis Ford Coppola took the bones of Conrad's story and rearranged them to illustrate the devastation of Vietnam in Apocalypse Now, O'Regan and his librettist, Tom Phillips, attempt to address Chinua Achebe's criticisms of Conrad without disrupting the source material. The casting is colour-blind in Edward Dick's simple production, with Njabulo Madlala as the Thames Captain and Sipho Fubesi doubling as Company Secretary and Manager, while the "barbarous and superb" River-Woman (Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, doubling as Kurtz's white fiancée) is afforded an elemental lament. It is, of course, wordless – a monumental vocalise – for Conrad gave few words to those who suffered at the hands of the Belgian traders.

In a colony where even the Doctor (Donald Maxwell) is touched with madness, grinning inanely as he measures Marlow's skull, the journey to the literal and metaphorical interior is fundamentally European. Jaewoo Kim's Harlequin signals the degradation to come in his Insane Clown Posse make-up. The horror of Kurtz's situation is that he, as is repeatedly stressed to Marlow, is a civilised man. In the pumped-up, shirtless form of Morten Lassenius Kramp, curled like a foetus on a battered writing desk, he cuts a very modern figure in an opera that could have been written 50 years ago.

Well sung and acted by Opera East's ensemble cast, and handsomely played by Chroma under Oliver Gooch, Heart of Darkness is an auspicious debut. How far O'Regan stretches the umbilical cord that binds him to Britten in his next work will be interesting to see.

Now in her seventies, Josephine Barstow never had a beautiful voice. She was, instead, a great singing actress and, in Neil Bartlett's brittle staging of The Queen of Spades for Opera North, still is. Rarely does the Countess dominate Tchaikovsky's opera so decisively. Less the addled former beauty than a great seductress in bitter revolt at the ignominy of decay, there's a touch of cabaret in Barstow's singing. The air from Grétry's Richard Coeur-de-Lion is delivered pianississimo. Every glance is steeped in ennui, every sip of champagne an expression of contempt towards the gauche boobies that surround her. The orchestra, under Richard Farnes, which starts with a great sigh of anguish, ignites when she is centre-stage.

Both vocally out-of-sorts, Lisa (Orla Boylan) and Herman (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts) are watercolours to Barstow's oil painting. Yet Jonathan Summers's Tomsky, William Dazeley's Yeletsky, Dan Norman's Chekalinsky and Paul Rendall's purse-lipped Master of Ceremonies register brightly. The row of footlights at the front of Kandis Cook's gilded set is duplicated in the Act II pastorale. To Herman, the only reality is the gaming table, and the lavishly costumed chorus of children, governesses and promenaders who pass by him remain ciphers. What it must be like to watch Barstow's hyper-sexual Countess when you are of the same age, I can only imagine. There was a powerful shudder of recognition from the quintet of elderly ladies seated to my left in Leeds.

'The Queen of Spades': Theatre Royal, Newcastle (0844 811 2121), then touring

Next Week:

Anna Picard hears Pierre-Laurent Aimard play Liszt at the Southbank

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