Welsh National Opera is staging a spectacular trio of performances to Birmingham, writes Christopher Morley.

The arrival of David Pountney as artistic director of Welsh National Opera has brought some changes in the way the company presents itself to the world.

Most obvious to audiences will be the new appearance of the programme-book, which now contains notes for every production in the current season, instead of a separate publication for each one. Those who have devotedly amassed the compact programme-books of the past elegantly on their shelves might bewail the change of size, but these volumes will stack up equally neatly.

And their content reflects the major artistic development Pountney has introduced, which is to introduce a theme to each sequence of operas. The current one is Free Spirits, chiefly featuring Berg’s Lulu and Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen, and the leading article in the programme-book is by Pountney himself, under the headline Two Bad Sisters. Difficult to shoe-horn Puccini’s Madam Butterfly into this concept, as that poor little geisha girl incarcerated herself into a despairing purdah awaiting her errant husband’s return, but I doubt audiences will quibble about that.

Lulu and Vixen Sharp-Ears are both free-spirited life-forces, amoral perhaps to the rest of the world, but always totally true to their own lights. Lulu leaves a swathe of dead husbands and lovers in her gradual degeneration, Sharp-Ears stands hands on hips in defiance of everyone, bringing more cubs into the world than she can remember, and her brutal death resonates around her forest environment, affecting both animals and humans.

Alban Berg compiled his Lulu from two late 19th century plays by Frank Wedekind, Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box. His heroine begins as a millionairess, inherited from her doctor husband who dies of a heart attack after finding her in flagrante with her latest lover, and ends as a destitute prostitute, pursued by a besotted lesbian lover, and dying at the hands of Jack the Ripper.

This is an extraordinarily hard-hitting opera, and Pountney’s new production for Welsh National Opera pulls no punches. Sexual allure is ever-present (Lulu – though only her pimping father ever addresses her by her real name – has no other means of communication), and the end of Act Two brings one of the most tension-creating scenes I have ever witnessed in over half-a-century of opera-going.

The staging I witnessed in the awesome auditorium of the Wales Millennium Centre was compelling. A huge gantry provides the set, up and down which characters strut, or crawl, or limp agonisingly, and from which the growing number of Lulu’s dead lovers are suspended like slaughterhouse cadavers.

In the huge pit, the WNO Orchestra delivered a sumptuous account of this surprisingly tender score (we hear reminiscences of Mahler, Richard Strauss, and I think Puccini – what taste Berg had) under Lothar Koenigs.

It’s a long evening, even with the somewhat shorter Act III in Eberhard Kloke’s new realisation. But the production is a stunner.

We have long loved David Pountney’s production of Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen (originally seen in 1980, no less). Over the past third of a century it has been sensitively updated for its frequent revivals, and Elaine Tyler-Hall has added to the magic for this latest showing in her treatment of the stage-direction and choreography.

Pountney has updated his own vivid translation of a text which ranges from the sparky to the sadly reflective.

To the subversive utterances of the Vixen herself, as she tries to persuade brain-dead hens to liberate themselves from the abusive tyranny of the strutting cockerel, or when she verbally abuses the plutocrat badger, telling him three families could live in his home for one, and what a “fat cat” he is (he flees, and the burrow becomes hers), he injects much political topicality.

All this is enthralling, but there are also two constants which remain the same. One is the enchanting design of Maria Bjornson, picture-book and resourceful, costumes so built out of the characters (I wish WNO would publish a collection of these images), wondrously lit by Nick Chelton to depict the changing seasons.

The other is Janacek’s vibrant score, the product of an old man looking back at the end of his life, musing on love and nature, and accepting all that has to be.

Verbal patterns are so naturally reproduced in the music (much like Puccini, and anticipating Britten – Richard Strauss is occasionally there, too), with excellent clarity of diction from the singers; we scarcely needed the English surtitles, though Welsh-speakers will have appreciated the parallel ones in their own language on display in Cardiff.

Happy company response to the exhilaration of this show, from the grizzled old professionals right down to the little dots who make such charming forest-creatures comes through in abundance.

The WNO Orchestra relishes all the rewarding challenges of the score, and Lothar Koenigs conducts with affection, but one which never undermines his sense of timing and drama.

Tears are easily shed in the auditorium, whether for sadness at the fate of most of the major characters, or for joy at the constant affirmation of the renewal of life at each turning of the seasons. And listeners will go home with the most life-enhancing ear-worms to take into their dreams.

* Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome: March 5, Lulu (7pm); March 6, Madam Butterfly (7.15pm); March 7, Cunning Little Vixen (7.15pm); March 8, Madam Butterfly (7.15pm); March 9, Madam Butterfly (7.15pm).