One Parsifal (Welsh National Opera). Two Tristans (Glyndebourne and the BBC Symphony Orchestra). Three Ring Cycles (Scottish Opera, ENO and Covent Garden). British opera has begun to think big. And very long. Except in Leeds, that is, where Opera North are subverting the vogue for epic opera with Eight Little Greats: an audacious programme of individually-ticketed bite-sized operas to be mixed and matched as double or single bills according to taste, budget, appetite and lifestyle. Fancy a leisurely post-performance dinner? The first opera will be over by 8.35pm. Want to put the kids to bed before you go out? No problem. The second starts at 9.15pm.
Opera as tapas is a civilised idea. But the danger with applying this concept to works by composers as varied and variable as Bizet, Weill, Leoncavallo, Rachmaninov, Rossini, Puccini, Zemlinsky and Falla is that those who sit through both halves of one of Opera North's random double-bills may be left with the queasy, confused palate commonly brought on by outré experiments in fusion cuisine. Chicken tikka pizza, anyone? Thought not.
On paper, the first double-bill in Eight Little Greats has some thematic unity. In practice, The Dwarf and La vida breve are as unlikely a combination as the afore-mentioned dish, despite their Spanish setting. In part this is the result of stylistic differences between the scores; Zemlinsky's Madrid being Expressionist Vienna in fancy dress, Falla's Granada a Moorish Madrid. In the main, it is the result of stylistic differences between David Pountney and Christopher Alden: two directors whose work at best reflects astonishing bravery and at worst prioritises the signature of the director over that of the composer.
With Pountney and Alden directing four operas apiece, Eight Little Greats will be nothing if not lively. (The pairings are in constant revolution throughout the season.) How successful it will be is another matter. Certainly, Pountney's Vivienne Westwood retrospective - all fright wigs, mini-crinnies, whacky macqui and parodic platform heels - does little to enhance Zemlinsky's fetishistic tragedy. Making the court of the Infanta (Stefanie Krahnenfeld) perfectly ugly and the tail-coated Dwarf (Paul Nilon) perfectly presentable - and scarcely shorter than Tom Cruise - reduces an already simplistic argument to the level of a JCR debate. Like, ugly people are beautiful inside? Like, you can be beautiful outside but inside you can be hideous? Yes, we get it. We get that Oscar Wilde's story is about the loneliness of otherness and the heartlessness of the very lovely, and that Zemlinsky's operatic adaptation is about his romantic rejection by that frightful minx Alma Mahler and, as a Jew, by the Viennese establishment. But Pountney doesn't make us care.
Nilon, as ever, delivers a stylish and punctilious vocal performance, only slightly undermined by a Charles Hawtrey-esque falsetto squeak of horror when the Dwarf first encounters his reflection. Krahnenfeld, like the female chorus, is utterly overwhelmed by excess vibrato, inelegant physical direction, and the strident conducting of David Parry. Under Parry, the orchestra fail to unite the Straussian string figures with Zemlinksy's bigger, Bergian gestures and do not achieve the opulent eroticism this difficult score needs. Only Majella Cullagh's sympathetic Ghita - the sole character to develop over 90 minutes of gargantuan grotesquerie - and Graeme Broadbent's icily camp Don Estoban cut through the disorganised texture of Parry's accompaniment, and though balance problems should be resolved by the second performance, Pountney's production is, alas, a stinker.
Short-sighted audience members may wonder why Christopher Alden put the plain girl with the facial hair problem at the front of the bridalwear sweatshop in which La vida breve is set. Squint a little harder: she is a he. In much the same way as Alden made the Marchesa Attavanti a constant presence in his production of Tosca - still the best I have seen - he has taken the offstage role of the Worker (Richard Coxon) and extrapolated a pivotal character: a transvestite seamstress whose brutal public martyrdom mirrors that of poor, deceived Salud (Mary Plazas).
Quite what this, the masturbation, marijuana-toking and bi-sexual shenanigans of Paco (Leonardo Capalbo), Carmela (Kim-Marie Woodhouse) and Manuel (Mark Stone) have to do with Falla's folksy aesthetic, I don't know. But La vida breve is sensationally well-acted - by Plazas and Coxon in particular - and beautifully directed to the smallest detail. Under the acrid glare of flourescent strips, public and private are inverted and religious imagery - confirmation, postulation, crucifixion, assumption - combines with the elegant machismo of matadors and the violent beauty of flamenco: a sado-masochistic ecstasy that repels, transfixes and fascinates like nothing else I've seen in Leeds since, well, Alden's Tosca. Under Martin André the earlier abstraction of the orchestra is reversed, producing a smooth, plangent, powerful sound that shivers easily through the compressed arabesques of the score and provides a warm seam of support for some magnificent singing from the soloists and chorus. A stunning production that promises much for at least three other of Opera North's Eight Little Greats.
'The Dwarf'/'La vida breve': Grand Theatre, Leeds (0113 222 6222) to 22 May, then touringReuse content