Duke Bluebeard's Castle/Opera North, Leeds Town Hall

Evil and seduction at the heart of local government
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The Independent Culture

With the Grand Theatre closed for refurbishment, Opera North have taken to the road. Last weekend, Leeds Town Hall was the venue for their first semi-staged performance of Duke Bluebeard's Castle: the ultimate vehicle for two great singing actors, an ambitious conductor, and a fine opera orchestra.

With the Grand Theatre closed for refurbishment, Opera North have taken to the road. Last weekend, Leeds Town Hall was the venue for their first semi-staged performance of Duke Bluebeard's Castle: the ultimate vehicle for two great singing actors, an ambitious conductor, and a fine opera orchestra.

Transforming this opulent temple to civic rectitude into the wet-walled sarcophagus of Bartok's horror story was remarkably simple. All it took was a lowering of the lights, the first ambivalent stirring of the strings, a flash of Sally Burgess's fearful eyes, and a few unnerving words from John Tomlinson (pictured, right). Combining the roles of Narrator and Bluebeard, Tomlinson sets the scene for something beyond the imagining of any set designer.

Though Adam Wiltshire's abstract video projections - loosely colour-coded to the seven doors of the castle - are singularly ineffective, Giles Havergal's direction is persuasive. Tomlinson's Bluebeard is menacing from the start, softening only briefly at the opening of the sixth door, thus the emphasis is on Burgess's Judith throughout. Why does she push and persuade? Why is she compelled to look at the things that no-one should see? Though occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra - Havergal moves the actors through their ranks - Burgess's performance is mesmeric. She has the ability to change her face from that of a child to that of a hag; to be seductive, girlish, half-dead with desolation.

For conductor Richard Farnes, this season is an opportunity to test the mettle of his orchestra in a new way. In the gleaming acoustics of the Town Hall, they sounded magnificent. I'm not sure that Duke Bluebeard's Castle needs a warm-up act, but Farnes's Daphnis et Chloé was so expertly and sensitively controlled that one could only marvel that he is not more regularly to be heard at the helm of a symphony orchestra.

The Sage, Gateshead (0191 443 4661), Tuesday; Symphony Hall, Birmingham (0121 780 3333), Saturday

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