Like other publicly funded enterprises, Opera North is feeling the pinch, and has had to cut back on the current season. But it retains its characteristic spirit of adventure, and is mounting three fresh productions of works new to its repertoire, as well as pressing on with its semi-staged Ring Cycle.
Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades is the first novelty, and Neil Bartlett has been brought in to direct it. The company's commitment to this powerful piece is not in doubt. An enlarged chorus is handsomely costumed, the ensemble scenes are full of apt detail. The Act Two ball scene is sumptuous, bathed in a golden glow, while the final, fatal gambling scene is full of male rowdiness and simmering aggression. Richard Farnes and his orchestra bring out all the colour, richness and drama of Tchaikovsky's orchestral writing. The set is simple but adaptable, although you could be forgiven for not realising that the opening scene is set in a St Petersburg park. Contemporary designers often have difficulty in representing nature and the outdoors.
Overall, Neil Bartlett's production is, perhaps surprisingly, rather traditional. The social character of the opera is well brought out, and is vividly contrasted with Herman's brooding obsession. But the tragic character of this essentially dark work is rather neglected. The production lacks the existential focus which Richard Jones brought to it for Welsh National Opera.
The solo singing was variable. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts had the power but not the lyrical line which Herman ideally requires, although he certainly had the right intensity. Orla Boylan was too stolid to convey Lisa's essential fragility. But Jonathan Summers, with a brandy (or vodka) flask, was in eloquent voice as Tomsky, and William Dazeley was a positive Yeletsky.
And then there was Dame Josephine Barstow as the aged Countess. She has lost none of her stage magnetism. She veered between sentimental recollections and imperious irritability, and in the bedroom scene her quiet singing was utterly magical. This scene, in which Herman tries to extract from her the secret of her winning three cards, is one of the great scenes in all opera, and it did not disappoint.
Ends tonight; then touring (www.operanorth.co.uk)