SIX "Little Greats" – short operas in three pairs – make up Opera North’s autumn season to October 21.

Bite-size chunks are ideal for new audiences and educational projects. They also put a premium on rapid scene-setting and character development, thereby adding to the excitement for experienced punters. The season opens with two new productions.

Appropriately for the curtain-raiser, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, designed and directed by Charles Edwards, is set in modern rehearsal studios, with cast and crew busily self-important and egos in conflict. Verismo? Surely not. So Calabrian peasantry yield to British artistes. But upper lips did not remain stiff for long.

The Prologue alone is sung in English, with Richard Burkhard’s determined Tonio stoking up the already fervid emotional temperature. He becomes quite a menacing figure, skulking on the sidelines while waiting for Canio to exact revenge on his behalf.

Peter Auty fashions a highly strung Canio from the start, his stage "nerves" spilling over into his threatened love-life. It makes for crackling sexual suspense, even if in the early stages it also detracts from the gleam at the top of his range. But his cantabile grows ever smoother until Vesti la giubba drips with irony.

Elin Pritchard’s Nedda strikes a nicely credible balance between being the love-interest of three men and having a mind of her own. Determination marks her singing, too, but the gentler approach to her duet with Silvio gives temporary relief from the accumulating tension. Philip Rhodes’s Silvio is an ardent adulterer, oblivious to crossing any social boundaries, and Joseph Shovelton’s genial Beppe makes a useful foil to the shenanigans around him.

The chorus maximise their opportunities as distinctive members of a play within a play. Tobias Ringborg’s headstrong conducting rocks from one extreme to another, hardly subtle but underlining rapidly changing moods. Never, indeed, have art and life been so intertwined as in this enthralling production.

Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges ("The child and the spells"), in Annabel Arden’s enchanting production, is a fairy-tale in comparison. Wallis Giunta’s versatile mezzo is tailor-made for the Child and her athletic travels around the stage – including an alpha-plus cartwheel – gives her boyish bravado even more plausibility. It is impossible to take your eyes, or ears, off her.

The fable is about the harmful effects of her early tantrums and the way that all her victims come to life, not only in Colette’s libretto but also in Ravel’s hugely colourful score, is unique in opera’s annals. So Martin André’s sympathetic, detailed conducting is crucial to its success. A star-studded cast, including John Graham-Hall’s phallic teapot, John Savournin’s armchair, and Katie Bray and Quirijn de Lang’s cats, gives witty support throughout. Spellbinding.

Picture: Tristram Kenton