The figure may be chunkier these days, the features broader, but the tenor voice of Dennis O?Neill has lost none of its thrill, and his stage presence none of its charisma ? the eyes still command colleagues and audience alike.

Despite an insert in my programme announcing a replacement, it was indeed O?Neill appearing in both Mascagni?s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo?s Pagliaccifor Welsh National Opera on Wednesday. His powerful crystal-crackling tones remain unmistakable, and the vividness of the way he delivers his words is as full-blooded as any Italian or Spanish supertenor could achieve.

As Jack-the-lad Turiddu in the Mascagni he swaggered and strutted (despite a bumpy start to the famous Drinking Song), then crumpled in despairing realisation that the duel he has provoked will end in his death.

Susan Gorton was compassionate, world-weary as his Mamma Lucia, and Marianna Tarasova was poignant and embittered (dark, angry lowest notes) as the seduced and abandoned Santuzza.

Elijah Moshinsky?s production emphasises all the vigour and detail of Sicilian life this Easter Sunday morning. The chorus (currently on form tremendous even by WNO standards) take every opportunity to act in character, inspired by one of the most beautiful village sets I?ve ever seen on the stage (Michael Yeargan?s design). Howard Harrison?s lighting adds an extra element, determinedly non-naturalistic as it subtly signals emotional developments.

The production team is the same for both operas, so the ample yet refined sounds conductor Julian Smith summons from the superb orchestra in Mascagni?s masterpiece even make Leoncavallo?s garish, Wagnerplundering score seem more elegant than it is.

Moshinsky?s decision to set Pagliacci?s lurid tale of murderous jealousy amid a troupe of strolling players in the immediate post-World War Two period brings the opportunity for nostalgic stage-dressing, from a battered old lorry to evocative advertising posters and villagers clad in their holiday finery. It all works very well.

Delphine Gillot is a touch lightweight for the adulterous Nedda, but O?Neill as the cuckolded actormanager brings depths of tragedy as he kills his wife, embracing the audience in expectations of applause, then freezing his arms as though crucified. 

Repeated tomorrow (7.15pm). Running time: Three hours.

Christopher Morley