YORK Opera never ceases to surprise. For all its popularity, no company schedules Verdi’s Fallen Woman without ensuring a cast-iron Violetta in the title role: it makes huge demands. But in Ione Cumming it has found a treasure. Fresh from her success as Turandot with this company last year, she has added another vital string to her bow.

Here is a soprano who has flirted with a full-scale professional career – and could still have one for the asking – but whose commitment to family and farming is clearly her present priority. For the meantime, we can enjoy her remarkable talents at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre. She starts strongly and gets better as she begins to relax, thinking less about technique; on her deathbed, her versatile soprano shows its true mettle, switching easily between delight and despair and floating some exquisite top notes.

Both she and her Alfredo, Karl Reiff, could bear in mind that the Rowntree is a small space to fill: they could turn down their projection in the first two acts. Reiff sports a useful tenor that loses its dryness – and picks up resonance – when he does not force his tone. He is not the most amorous of lovers, but he has plenty of swagger. The other key principal is Ian Thomson-Smith’s avuncular Germont père (Giorgio), who moves smoothly from hostility towards Violetta to an altogether more supportive stance. His baritone is in good nick, too.

John Soper’s production forsakes the 1840s for a fin de siècle milieu, allowing Margaret Soper to streamline the exotic dresses on this restricted stage. As a result, the chorus ladies are extremely fetching, partnered by gentlemen in tails. John Soper’s own permanent set is kept deliberately uncluttered, hinting at nobility with some strategic scrolls on the woodwork. The chorus are basically in fine voice, but need to curtail their penchant for extraneous "business", which is distracting. There is some nice choreography from Hilary Dyson for a trio of revellers at the salon of Flora (engagingly played by Dyson herself), but it is muddied by some copy-cat movements from the chorus behind.

John Atkin conducts with plenty of enthusiasm but less subtlety. His prologue is sedate and the crucial duet in the country between Violetta and Giorgio lacks momentum. But he coaxes some disciplined sounds from his 16-piece orchestra, with woodwinds in especially good form. There are helpful cameos from Susan Blenkiron’s lively Annina, Clive Goodhead’s dignified Douphol and Clive Marshall’s solicitous doctor. But the laurels are Ms Cumming’s: she is worth the price of admission on her own.

York Opera in La Traviata, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, tonight (Wednesday), Friday and Saturday, 7.30pm. Box office: josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk or 01904 501935

01904 50 1935