Ylva Kihlberg grinned ear-to-ear and made cutesy heart shapes with her hands as she took her bow.

It was an odd disconnect from the role she'd just played but the Swedish soprano had every reason to be pleased. This was the first time she'd sung Emilia Marty, femme fatale of The Makropulos Case, and the first time she'd sung any major role in the UK. The debut was impressive on both counts.

Opera North's new production is a gripping, heart-wrenching piece of drama. Like all of Janacek's operas, Makropulos is fantastically compact – done and dusted in well under two hours. The plot's tight-sprung twists and acerbic morbidity can leave a wry taste when it's done too coldly. Not so under Tom Cairns's direction. The English translation is clear and largely rhythmic. The cast is solid, with standout turns from Paul Nilon as a lovable Gregor and James Creswell as lawyer Kolenaty. The production looks great in splashes of Lynchian reds and blues beautifully lit against long noir shadows. And it sounds, for the most part, superb: conductor Richard Farnes captures the score's filmic bustle, and no doubt rough edges in the pit will sharpen up as the production matures.

But Kihlberg is the main event. There's more than a hint of the Iron Lady when she enters sporting black clutch, boxy skirt-suit and helmet bouffant. Her vulnerability soon shows; when the chambermaid says she pities her it's easy to concur. The third is Emilia's great act, demanding hefty lyric singing after two acts of snide chatter. Kihlberg's voice, incisive and agile above the orchestra, more than meets the challenge.