Djamileh / The Seven Deadly Sins, Grand Theatre, Leeds

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The Independent Culture

Sex, sleaze, and the male exploitation of women are the themes that dominate the final duo in Opera North's brilliantly successful season of short operas. Bizet's Djamileh is a characteristic piece of French 19th-century orientalism. Haroun, a Cairo playboy, takes a new mistress every month, but the about-to-be-discarded Djamileh has fallen in love with him. With the help of his servant Splendiano, she reappears in disguise as his next selection, and melts his heart.

All ends happily, it seems, but not in Christopher Alden's staging, in which Haroun strangles her with a necklace in the final seconds of the opera. This was shocking, but not out of key with the production as a whole. Alden set the opera in an urban hotel room, complete with pink-shaded lamps and mini-fridge. Outside, a flashing neon sign casts a red glow on to the wall at half-minute intervals.

The opening scene is unmistakeably post-coital. Haroun (Paul Nilon) is slumped in a dressing-gown in front of the telly. Djamileh (Patricia Bardon) is asleep on the bed. Splendiano (Mark Stone) is filming her. Splendiano hopes to pick her up once Haroun has discarded her. Neither treats her with respect. Djamileh emerges as the only sympathetic character, Bardon's strong but flexible mezzo suiting the role admirably.

When it comes to choosing her successor, a lumpen group of men watch the woman dancing on video. Haroun soon spots Djamileh beneath her disguise, and the music certainly suggests that he is touched by her devotion. But given the cynical depravity of the scenario, his final act of violence is plausible.

The story is slight and not particularly dramatic. Alden's staging has the supreme merit of bringing it to life, and Bizet's music is vivid and touching. It was sung in French, but apart from Nilon, the performers handled the language awkwardly.

There is no obvious way of staging Weill and Brecht's The Seven Deadly Sins. It is subtitled a ballet chanté, and while Anna I is a singer, her sister, or other half, Anna II, is a dancer. She or they is/are dispatched by their hillbilly family in Louisiana to make their fortune in the great cities of America. Brecht's characteristic irony is that worldly success only comes to those who resist the temptations of the biblical sins.

David Pountney's production was a study in extremism. Blood, nakedness, obscene greediness and simulated sex were all much in evidence - fine for gluttony and lust; but how envy related to a bloody bout in the boxing-ring was lost on me.

Brecht was never content with the traditionally subordinate role of librettist, and words count for more than usual in this piece. More of them needed to be audible. Rebecca Caine, as Anna I, carried the main burden. She produced some lovely sounds, but struggled to project the text. The quartet of grotesques who are her family fared better, but the piece as a whole came over as an exploration of violence and degeneracy rather than the bitter moral fable its creators intended.

On tour: Newcastle, Salford, Nottingham and Sadler's Wells, London, 1-26 June

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