OPERA Violanta Grand Theatre, Leeds

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The Independent Culture
At the age of nine, he was composing cantatas, and within a few years his music was being publicly performed. At the age of 14, he was already revising his "early" works. He had an ambitious and domineering father, who christened him Wolfgang (but not Amadeus). For once, parental ambition was not utterly misplaced. Even Felix Mendelssohn was not as precocious as the boy Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Mahler, Richard Strauss and Puccini all marvelled at his early accomplishment. Violanta was the heavier half of a double-bill of one-act operas composed when Korngold was still in his teens and premiered in Munich in 1916 under the baton of Bruno Walter, no less. It was a success, and further performances in Vienna and elsewhere soon followed.

But, like other Korngold operas (including Die tote Stadt), Violanta never reached Britain. So Opera North, with characteristic enterprise, was not so much reviving it as resurrecting it, in last week's concert performance given to mark the centenary of Korngold's birth.

Violanta might be thought of as a piece of Austro-Geman verismo. Like Boito's La Gioconda (also recently revived by Opera North), it is set in Venice at carnival time, and it is a story of revenge, passion and murder. Alfonso, a Neapolitan prince, is in Venice for the occasion. He is the man who seduced Violanta's sister, who then committed suicide. Violanta is eager for vengeance. She has made an assignation with him, and wants her husband, Simone, to kill him when she gives the signal. He agrees, but when she meets Alfonso, she realises that she is in love with him. When Simone appears, dagger in hand at the appointed moment, she throws herself in front of Alonso, and dies in his stead.

The work has obvious affinities with near-contemporary one-acters like Puccini's Il tabarro and, especially, A Florentine Tragedy by Korngold's teacher, Alexander Zemlinsky. But it also exists, like so much German opera, in the shadow of Tristan. The sinister interaction of love and death, which reached an expressionist extreme in Salome, is also a theme of Violanta. Korngold's youth was anything but dissipated, and it is certainly a matter for amazement that such an innocent could have so effectively conjured up an intense atmosphere of passion and sensuality.

The 75-minute piece is beautifully constructed and balanced. It was an inspired stroke for Korngold to have added to the original libretto a scene in which Barbara, Violanta's old nurse, sings her a lullaby as she agitatedly awaits the arrival of Alfonso. This provides a quiet interlude before the sustained confrontation between the two which makes up the opera's second half and moves towards its climax in a superb love duet, abruptly ended by Simone's fateful calls.

The work got an aptly passionate and committed performance from all concerned, most notably Janice Cairns in the title role. Alas, her voice now shows signs of wear and tear, and turns harsh under pressure. As Alfonso, the tenor lover, Hans Aschenbach had trouble with his top notes, but sang his eloquent confessional aria with sensitivity, making the most of limited vocal resources. The most dependable singing came from Jonathan Summers as the gloomy, unloved husband, and from Stuart Kale and Liane Keegan in smaller roles.

Inevitably, it was a night for the orchestra too, and Paul Daniel, making his last appearance in Leeds as the company's music director (no replacement yet in sight) before moving on to ENO, obtained a suitably lush and colourful account of the score. Apart from occasional lighting variations and some rather feeble back projections, there was little sign of the previously advertised "semi-staging". But an enthusiastic reception showed that Violanta is definitely a piece worth resuscitating. Londoners will have a chance to decide for themselves when Opera North bring it to the Proms (and Radio 3) on 24 July.

Proms telephone booking opens on Monday: 0171-589 8212

Anthony Arblaster