Jenufa, Coliseum, London</br>Rigoletto, Grand Theatre, Leeds</br>Phases: The Music of Steve Reich, Barbican, Lodnon

Mother Russia's bad parenting
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The Independent Culture

The Coliseum is a large theatre. Not just in its seating capacity, but also in the depth of its stage. Few productions I've seen there make better use of this space than David Alden's Jenufa, where daylight is filtered through a vast polluted sky. Designed by Charles Edwards, the landscape is not one of folk costumes and purling streams, but the cheap leather jackets and poisoned fields of industrialised northern Moravia in the early 1980s. The Buryja mill has become a metal shop, its revolutions replaced by a blinding flash of arc-welding at every repetition of Janacek's xylophone motif; the Kostelnicka's house a dwelling devoid of bourgeois comforts other than the smart coat she remembers to put on before taking her grandchild to his death. In this desperate place where appearance is all, the rosemary bush tended by Jenufa is the only plant, its guardian, until her "cheeks like apples" are slashed by one of the two people who love her best and worst, the sole object of beauty.

Alden's updating of Jenufa to the years before the Czech Republic broke away from Mother Russia will not be to everyone's taste, yet it is without doubt one in which this cruel story of bad-parenting achieves extra layers of meaning, and one in which one's assumptions about the characters are continually challenged. It is also, thanks to the highly perceptive conductor Mikhail Agrest, a galvanized orchestra, and a largely excellent central cast, a new start for a seemingly self-destructive company. Leading this renewal is Amanda Roocroft in her finest and most complex incarnation of the title-role to date, maturing from girl to woman before our eyes; and the tenor Stuart Skelton, whose heroic portrayal of Laca as the unloved sibling of slick, stupid, spoiled Steva has equal if not greater pathos.

It takes nerve to make a work in which one expects to feel overwhelming sorrow for Jenufa, and sometimes for the Kostelnicka, into one in which every event is leading towards Laca's disbelieving stumble into Jenufa's arms, still terrified by the prospect of finally being loved. Alden flirts with our expectations, allowing Jenufa to laugh off Laca's threatened violence with an electric screw-driver as horse-play long before his attack with the knife. Iain Paterson's sharpening of this weapon, as the Foreman, is subtly emphasized, and offset by Susan Gorton's comic Grandmother, and some beautifully detailed chorus direction. Among the rest of the cast, Lee Bisset makes a lovely Karolka, aware of her prettiness but not malicious, while Paul Charles Clarke's Steva conjures every bad date one has ever been on. Only Catherine Malfitano seems out of place, phrasing Janacek as though he were Puccini, and acting the Kostelnicka in chiaroscuro gestures. It's a great performance, but not one that suits this very great production.

Last weekend, Opera North returned to the partially-restored Grand Theatre after a season of peripatetic concert performances in which its orchestra became yet more polished and expressive. The new acoustics are crisp and clear. Sadly, the new production of Rigoletto isn't. Doubling as director, designer Charles Edwards has set the opera in the offices of Bambina, a soft-porn magazine owned by "a man known to his cronies as Il Duca", and a trailer park. Several Aldenisms have bled into Rigoletto - the press of hostile faces at windows smeared like cataracts, the cracking of ceilings like eggshells - but Edwards lacks the discipline of his mentor, is too obviously infatuated with Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and David Chase, and makes poor use of the chorus on a very cramped stage.

That the applause consistently came in on cue says much for conductor Martin André's powerful account of the score. From the baleful opening notes, his interpretation burns with anxiety, sometimes overwhelming the singers. In the title-role, Alan Opie sings with consummate control and understanding of his character. Brindley Sherratt has presence as a Travis Bickle-styled Sparafucile, as does Rebecca de Pont Davies as Maddalena/Giovanna, while Henriette Bonde-Hansen is the most moving, unspoilt, girlish Gilda I have seen. Her voice is small, almost Mozartian, but she sings and acts with deep feeling. Rafael Rojas, the Malfitano of this production, sings well at his favoured dynamic (fortissimo) and projects the Duke's self-pitying sleaze by semaphore. Were Bonde-Hansen a less convincing innocent, Gilda's love for him would be utterly unbelievable.

The final event of Phases: The Music of Steve Reich was the world premiere of Daniel Variations. Reich's memorial to Daniel Pearl is written in four dovetailed sections: two quoting the Book of Daniel in sharp twists of dissonance, two quoting Pearl himself. Like John Adams, whose 9/11 memorial On the Transmigration of Souls used the severe-clear sky of that savage morning almost as a vision of heaven, and whose aria for the murdered hostage Leon Klinghoffer is a passacaglia as lovely as it is terrible, Reich refrains from any crude depiction of Pearl's murder, instead describing a state of major-key joy in which he is forever the boyish idealist who loved to play the violin.

Though the ecstatic figures for strings, exquisitely realised by violinists Liz Lim-Dutton and Todd Reynolds of the Steve Reich Ensemble, are a touching tribute to Pearl, Daniel Variations is not Reich's finest piece. Neither is "Cello Counterpoint" (2003), a semi-recorded octet which stifles any opportunity for invention in live performance, to the point of preserving cellist Maya Beiser in the soft-rock leather corset she sports in the accompanying videos. But "Music for 18 Musicians" (1976), perhaps the most beguiling instrumental landscape minimalism has to offer, very probably is, and the applause at its performance was rapturous. I don't believe that this diligent, self-effacing septugenarian is, as some have claimed, America's greatest living composer. But he is definitely its most-loved living composer.

'Rigoletto', Grand Theatre, Leeds (0870 122 4362) to 25 Oct; touring. 'Jenufa', Coliseum, London (0870 145 1700) to 28 Oct

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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