Behind closed doors: Now is the time to say goodbye: OPERA: Edward Seckerson on Freni and Carreras in Covent Garden's new production of Giordano's Fedora

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It doesn't say much for Giordano that Fedora's most striking gesture is a protracted melodrama played out over the off-stage piano warblings of pastiche Chopin. But this is verismo opera on the brink of self-parody, and second-hand Chopin is oddly enticing among so much second-rate Giordano. All right, so I admit, I count myself among those consenting adults who claim never to have enjoyed Fedora but have furtively indulged, after hours, behind locked doors. But how much mileage is there in a handful of overheated tunes strung together like exclamation marks to a ludicrous plot? Minor Russian princess seeks revenge and finds true love. Cue an avalanche of complications and superfluous minor characters, some on bicycles. The impatiently awaited denouement hangs on the late enlightenment of a tenor hero, even slower on the uptake than most tenor heroes, and a jewelled crucifix primed with poison. Ah, yes, let's not forget the crucifix.

So why? Why do it? Particularly now, when houses like Covent Garden are so strapped for cash. Answer: the big voices. To give him his due, Giordano did know a thing or two about mounting a star vehicle, and just as Sarah Bernhardt was drawn to Victorien Sardou's original play, so a grand succession of celebrated divas have found sustenance in Giordano's title role. It's showy, it's eminently milkable and on the whole it lies comfortably for great voices in their twilight years.

Mirella Freni is just such a voice. To hear her, even now, is to know what is so often lacking in style and fundamental technique among the less well-schooled of today's singers. It's the infallible support, the moulding of line, the beautiful flottando effects. So much voice. And because she nursed her assets in earlier years - because she didn't, for instance, overwork the chest voice (such a temptation in the lyric Italian repertoire) - she can use it to burnished, imperious effect now.

But one is beginning to have to make allowances for the quality of sound under pressure, and it is surely significant when a great singer like this must take the lower option to her spectacular high C in the love duet. Perhaps now is the time to bow out and leave us with the memories.

So, too, Jose Carreras - singing more now on fierce conviction than his once matchless beauty of timbre. There are glimpses of the old sound, and the intensity, the bravery of his delivery can pin you to the seat. But the widening vibrato, the hectoring, the vocal histrionics . . . even in this repertoire. Charisma will out - but not indefinitely.

In the pit, Edward Downes presided here with the relish of one who knows it's Giordano but can make believe it's prime Puccini. He's a terrifically dynamic motivator in dubious scores like this, and his enthusiastic despatch of Giordano's fulsome string unisons - notably the luscious Act 2 interlude - were enough to make the eyes water.

The staging is all you might expect from a co-production with La Scala, Milan. Expensive set-dressing on a slow revolve sits prettily against watercolour backdrops, like the window display at some classy store. Dramatic friezes, some in silhouette, pass for action (shock-horror, 'It's the nihilists]'), and the prima donna steps regally into her own light, downstage-centre, for her final-act prayer. Just like the old days.

In rep to 27 May, ROH, Covent Gdn (071-240 1911); relayed live on the Big Screen in the Piazza, 19 May. Sponsored by Union Bank of Switzerland