The front gauze resembles the lights of a town as seen from a bomb aimer’s turret. During Bellini’s spirited overture, shadowy figures make their way into a political meeting; an execution takes place.

The Montagues and the Capulets are on the verge of all-out war. Romeo, the leader of the Montecchi army offers peace in exchange for marriage to Giulietta Capuleti but his proposal is rejected out of hand. The storyline of Bellini’s opera does not attempt to replicate Shakespeare’s play. There are fewer characters for one thing – no nurse for Giulietta, no earnest Benvulio or playful Mercutio. Director Orpha Phelan’s concept of the opera is a depiction of lives torn apart by Civil War. Leslie Travers’ settings – dominated by a huge, broken chandelier – are abstract, the characters are in modern dress.

We could just as easily be in Northern Ireland in the 1970s or Bosnia in the 1990s. Phelan’s tension-laden atmosphere almost smells of war and the sense of an impending cataclysmic event. She has created a compelling production which focuses attention on the characters – the five principals and the large chorus who make up the rival political factions. Crowd scenes are vividly animated and Phelan’s direction of the entire cast is so lovingly detailed that every nuance is projected across the stage with startling immediacy. The stark, visual modernist imagery – in a strange sort of way – fuses with the flowing musical line of Bellini’s score and its succession of florid arias and stirring choruses. This is a bel canto – beautiful singing – opera and that is exactly what we get from the principals and chorus of Opera North in this new production.

Sarah Connolly’s long-awaited Opera North debut comes to glorious fruition in the ‘trouser’ role of Romeo. Connolly’s consummate legato phrasing, a warm, rounded tone and the myriad colouring of her voice conveys both the formidable leader and the unbridled passion of youth.

Opposite her, Marie Arnet’s fragile, waif-like Giulietta tackles the florid passages with complete assurance. There is a notable house debut from the Lithuanian lyric tenor, Edgaras Montvidas as Tebaldo whose burnished timbre and ringing high notes excited the audience. Henry Waddington brings his beautiful and flexible bass voice to the role of Lorenzo and Russian bass Nicolay Didenko sings the role of Capello, Giulietta’s Father.

The five voices blend sublimely in the Act ll Quintet.

Italian conductor Manlio Benzi’s sensitive pacing gives his singers space to phrase and colour the vocal line while the orchestra of Opera North plays this score to the manner born. There is a Mozartian delicacy about much of the playing, the strings have a singing quality and the woodwind detailing is exquisitely contoured.

Just two more performances at Leeds Grand this Thursday and Saturday before touring.