I first saw Manuel de Falla’s hour-long La vida breve in the Grand Theatre a decade ago, when it was part of Eight Little Greats, Opera North’s series of short operas. I recall enjoying the Andalusian-style music, and being impressed by the lead soprano as Salud, and the way she built up to a climactic suicide producing a spectacular quantity of blood. I was even more impressed by this revival.

Anne Sophie Duprels (Salud) and Jesús Álvarez (Paco) © Bill Cooper | Opera North
Anne Sophie Duprels (Salud) and Jesús Álvarez (Paco)
© Bill Cooper | Opera North
The set – a grubby sweat shop crammed with workers slaving over sewing machines, final stitches being put into a wedding dress front stage – is the same as before, designed by the late Johan Engels, possibly with references to the long-gone rag trade of Leeds. Anne-Sophie Duprels as the betrayed Salud is excellent: she is deeply agitated from the beginning, when she anticipates the arrival of her vain, slimy lover Paco (Spanish tenor Jesús Álvarez hits all high notes with precision), and skillfully ramps up the agitation so that in the Grand Guignol finale she is absolutely hypnotic as she slowly cuts herself up with dressmaking shears, making red rivulets to run down her face and her shroud-like dress.

The production, directed by Christopher Alden, has more grotesque touches than previously, and there is more workplace bullying – except for Elizabeth Sikora’s charming Grandmother, most of the characters have few redeeming graces. Tenor Daniel Norman opens the proceedings by filling the theatre with his voice and presence as he walks around in drag with ceremonious slowness, to constant provocations from his fellows. Slow walking, as in a funeral procession, creates a ritualistic atmosphere which provides a kind of timeless quality. It is most effectively used by baritone Quirijn de Lang (last seen as Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro), who is a slow-moving and blue-suited wedding singer who makes flamenco sound alarmingly sinister as he drifts across front stage. Gavan Ring is terrific as Paco’s new boisterously drunk brother-in-law. To state the obvious, the plot is not so much ‘lurid and nasty’ (overheard comment) as uncomfortably true to life: as in so many other operas, the story might seem run-of-the mill to a tabloid journalist, or banal if recounted as a clinical case history, but here it is transformed into something magnificently tragic.

Tim Claydon (Dante/ Buoso Donati) © Bill Cooper | Opera North
Tim Claydon (Dante/ Buoso Donati)
© Bill Cooper | Opera North

The versatile Alden directs Puccini’s brief comedy Gianni Schicchi with great verve. Charles Edwards’s set is simple. A stuffed, trussed mule hangs down on ropes, and there is a huge mobile bed for Buoso Donati, who has left his riches to a monastery, and whose death is hastened with a pressed-down pillow by one of the grasping relatives. Gianni Schicchi takes his place on the bed in order to dictate a fake will to a lawyer equipped with a laptop. Incidentally one of the younger relatives is amusingly played by eleven year-old Rhys Gannon, a boy with a startlingly detailed CV, who wears ear-phones and gazes at an iPad throughout.

Christopher Purves (Gianni Schicchi) © Bill Cooper | Opera North
Christopher Purves (Gianni Schicchi)
© Bill Cooper | Opera North
The lawyer (Jeremy Peaker) and physician (Ross McInroy) appear above most of the action behind a long flat with steps in it, so that Buoso, or rather his spirit (the story is, after all, taken from a tiny fragment of Dante’s Divine Comedy) can climb about on it. At one point, Lauretta, Schicci’s daughter, climbs up and poses on it, not long after she has sung that aria.

It is the aria most of the audience has been waiting for – “O mio babbino caro” – the one every lyric soprano worth her salt records sooner or later. Jennifer France delivers it exquisitely, her sweet voice moving some in the audience to tears. Jesús Álvarez appears as her boyfriend Rinuccio, a more likeable character this time. Tim Claydon is an agile Buoso and a red-cloaked, pantomime Dante Alighieri amongst a generally quite athletic cast, movement director Tim Claydon once again making his mark. Christopher Purves as Gianni Schicci is never still, writhing and twisting on his bed, prancing around with glee and rushing forward to appeal to us at the end. As intended, he is the sort of cunning trickster that we can warm to. Puccini's opera is more in the spirit of Boccaccio than Dante, but no matter.

Jan van Steen conducts Opera North’s superb orchestra with subtlety and precision, especially in La vida breve, when the sounds of southern Spain become both beautiful and strangely threatening. It was a carefully-balanced programme for the evening, the comedy following the tragedy part of tradition which goes back to the clowns and morris dancers who came on stage after Hamlet in Shakespeare's time. It's a plan which still works.