I DUE FOSCARI back at Covent Garden for first time this century

Opera: Royal Opera House, London
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Beware directors who choreograph the entire drama during the Prelude. It's called the silent movie approach, and there's a particularly fine example of it currently on display at the Royal Opera. The setting is Venice, 1457. And all is not well with the Doge. In every corner of his palace, the enemies within lurk. Doors open and close. Shadowy figures watch and wait.

An anxious woman appears briefly with two children. Ah, yes, that's the family of the Doge's exiled son, Jacopo Foscari (you've been reading your programme synopsis).

And who's this shaking his fist at the Doge's portrait? Of course - the enemy within. And all the while Verdi's orchestra defiantly shakes its fist at the world.

I Due Foscari is back at Covent Garden for the first time this century (it was the first Verdi to be given there back in 1847) in a production which, far from disguising its considerable dramatic shortcomings (not least a feeble last act), is a grandiose indictment of them.

Designer Michael Goden's great gilded ceiling is a drama in itself: creaking, tilting precariously every which way from scene to scene. Upstaged by a ceiling. That's no fate for even early Verdi.

And what about the tacky evocation of Jacopo's prison cell hallucinations? There's poor Dennis O'Neill, railing against the ghostly harbingers of death, while an off-stage disco lightshow boogies to his distress.

What in heaven's name was August Eveding, the veteran director, thinking about? Not Verdi, that's for sure. No, here was a show where a surplus of nuns and way too many gondolas were almost an inevitability, where every scene would begin and end in frozen tableaux - a last resort so beloved of the director with no ideas. Grim.

But the drama, you would argue, is in the singing. Vocal style rules. Not on this night it didn't. Dennis O'Neill was good value. A tenor who thinks about what he's singing, whose purpose is in sculpting interesting phrases, who'll try for the difficult diminuendo at the close of an aria, is to be applauded.

Vladimir Chernov was the Doge, the voice taking time to lubribate itself into those grateful heartfelt legates, but still never finding comparable interest in the words.

So, too, June Anderson as the long-suffering Lucrezia. If your penchant is for sopranos whose best feature is the ability to break at speed through the top C barrier, then Anderson will not disappoint. But what do these fireworks express? What does any of this singing express?

The truly grateful, amply filled phrase was at a premium here, the lyric coloratura neither flawless nor interesting. It's not even a lovely sound: no girth, no bottom (merely a shallow chest tone), a reedy, "white" top. She is held in high esteem. I don't see it.

I do see why the Royal Opera siezed upon Daniele Gatti. He alone conveyed a burning belief in the promise of this score, kicking over the traces with a whole range of rhythmically enlivening accompagnamento, exciting (if occasionally over-zealous) tuttis with flashing piccolo and banda- like brass, and those striking portents of sombre Verdi colourations to come, like the pair of lachrymose cellos in the prelude to Act II, shivery trills feeling their way towards "etemal night". The orchestra responds to Gatti.

On a night like this, Verdi would have given thanks for him.

n 'I Due Foscari' in rep at the ROH, London, WC2 (Booking: 0171-304 4000)