Francesca da Rimini / Pagliacci, Grand Theatre, Leeds

A circle of hell that's heavenly
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As you would expect, there is no great musical distance between Rachmaninov's symphonic poem, The Isle of the Dead, and the house of the dead, the circle of hell, to which the two adulterous lovers in his opera, Francesca da Rimini, are eventually consigned. The composer, you feel, is more in love with the orchestra than the human voice. As Julian Grant puts it in the excellent programme book which accompanies this season, the opera is almost "a symphonic poem with obbligato voices", and the orchestra and conductor Martin Andre got a deservedly warm round of applause at the end. Sometimes too loud, though. The solo singers had to struggle to be heard at times.

As you would expect, there is no great musical distance between Rachmaninov's symphonic poem, The Isle of the Dead, and the house of the dead, the circle of hell, to which the two adulterous lovers in his opera, Francesca da Rimini, are eventually consigned. The composer, you feel, is more in love with the orchestra than the human voice. As Julian Grant puts it in the excellent programme book which accompanies this season, the opera is almost "a symphonic poem with obbligato voices", and the orchestra and conductor Martin Andre got a deservedly warm round of applause at the end. Sometimes too loud, though. The solo singers had to struggle to be heard at times.

But it is an immensely powerful piece, and it was powerfully performed. Jonathan Summers dominated as Malatesta, the cuckolded husband bent on revenge. Nina Pavlovski found some of Francesca's higher flights taxing, but sang and acted with intelligence and passion, as did Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as her lover, Paolo.

Hell is a gloomy, decaying warehouse where the lost souls - dark figures carrying suitcases - shuffle around endlessly, waiting for... what? David Pountney's production is visually stunning and owes much to the virtuosic lighting by Adam Silverman, and Johan Engels's simple but atmospheric set. Rachmaninov's gloomily eloquent music finds an apt visual counterpart in this memorable staging.

The only double bill of short operas in the central repertory, Cav and Pag, has not, as it happens, been over-exploited by Opera North; so they can be forgiven for including half of it in their current season, especially in a production as clever and entertaining as Christopher Alden's. Updating is the key to his productions. Here the troupe of touring players become a country-and-western band - "Canio and His Clowns". Canio (Geraint Dodd) wears a white jacket and a stetson, Nedda (Majella Cullagh in fine voice) has regulation big hair and a glitzy skirt. The audience responds in rock concert style.

Canio's big number, "On with the motley" as it used to be known, is the concert's last number. Dodd sings it feelingly, in a glow of red light. The "audience" leaves. The cleaners clean up after them. The play itself, which leads to the climactic murders, is done in a cheap café setting, while "the audience" returns and watches it as if it were a film, munching popcorn the while.

Nedda's lover on the side, Silvio, is a shy bespectacled anorak in a bobble hat rather than the usual preening swaggerer. Mark Stone did the role to perfection. Iain Paton deserves a mention for his beautifully sung, Italianate Beppe. Jonathan Summers reappeared as Tonio - yet another frustrated jealous would-be lover, whom Nedda cruelly mocks for his unattractiveness. Individually, his performance had the most impact. His prologue was riveting, as was the way in which he half-bellowed, half-hissed the final line "the show is over". His was the dominant vocal presence in an unforgettable, stirring evening of true music theatre.



In repertory in Leeds until May 22, then touring

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