The operas of Mieczyslaw Weinberg are being pulled out of obscurity. Until the 2010 Bregenz Festival, when director David Pountney placed the composer at the centre of the three-day event and staged an ambitious production of the The Passenger, none of his seven operas had ever been heard outside of Russia. For this reason, Opera North's current production of Weinberg's The Portrait (also directed by Pountney) is very special. It is the first time any of Weinberg's operatic works have ever been staged in the UK.

Paul Nilon as Chartkov and Peter Savidge as the Journalist / Bill Cooper
Paul Nilon as Chartkov and Peter Savidge as the Journalist / Bill Cooper

Weinberg completed The Portrait, which takes its inspiration from Gogol's short story of the same name, in 1980. It tells the tale of a young artist named Chartkov, who, despite his talent, is living a tortured and poverty-stricken existence. With his last kopek, he buys a painting which turns out to have magical properties. Providing Chartkov with the money to pay his rent, the new picture propels him into St Petersburg high society, where he is paid handsomely to paint the portraits of the city's wealthiest inhabitants. It comes at a price, though. Chartkov loses his muse, squanders his talent and drives himself mad.

The Portrait has echoes of Britten and of Weinberg's close friend Shostakovich. It's a demanding piece for singers, with every vocal line an expression of heightened emotion or deep despair. The success of the work hangs on Chartkov, as the majority of the opera's other roles are brief caricatures. Tenor Paul Nilon attacked it with gusto. Vocally, he summoned the necessary power to soar over the dramatic and unusual score, and created an atmosphere of mental instability throughout. By the end of the opera, with Chartkov in the throes of madness, a close-up of his face is projected onto the huge white backdrop. Every expression and every contortion are visible in detail, leaving nowhere to hide for a singer unable to inhabit the part. Nilon doesn't disappoint - I was captivated throughout the whole of his monologue, and felt his despair very acutely.

You would expect an opera which has the art world at its heart to be visually captivating, and Opera North definitely achieve this. Throughout the course of the production we're taken to many different worlds, each demonstrating the continual relevance of the story. In Gogol's St Petersburg, the setting is very surreal, with most of Chartkov's aristocratic customers on stilts, and one spinning around his studio on wheels. Not only does it communicate the false nature of this aspect of St Petersburg society, it reminds us that, however much money Chartkov makes, these people remain on a different level.

In the second half of the opera, Pountney places Chartkov in the context of Stalinist Russia (which Weinberg knew only too well) and we see that art without integrity can be dangerous as well as soulless. By the time Chartkov has realised his error, he has become a Warhol-like figure, and the development of his breakdown is recorded and exploited in a fashion all too familiar to a modern audience. Every single aspect of the staging, the set and the costumes reveal another layer of the story - the personification of Chartkov's muse is particularly brilliant, as is a visual trick at the very end which will leave you spellbound.

After the curtain came down, I had the feeling that the opera I had witnessed was just the beginning for Weinberg's music in the UK. There are already plans to stage Pountney's production of The Passenger at ENO in October, and with it's unusual score and difficult thematic questions, Opera North's visually stimulating interpretation of The Portrait is sure to arouse a curiosity amongst opera-lovers up and down the country.