OPERA / In the bag: Nick Kimberley on Covent Garden's Rigoletto and ETO's Boheme

Economy is not always opera's cardinal virtue, but Verdi's Rigoletto is so compressed you feel the lid might blow at any minute. Not a gesture is wasted, hardly a moment passes without some wondrous new melodic idea, yet the orchestra's every twitch and rustle increases the tension. Puccini's La Boheme, on the other hand, frets and fritters, uncertain whether it's a frolicsome tale of know-nothing Bohemians, or a tragedy of one woman's wasted life. The last 10 minutes render the previous 90 almost redundant.

Nuria Espert's Covent Garden production of Rigoletto undermines Verdi's rigour. The huge sets not only miniaturise the characters, they also demand lengthy scene-changes. Even American TV might blush to have nearly an hour of inaction (two intervals, a long pause between the first two scenes) in a drama lasting barely two hours. Daniel Dooner, the revival director, struggles to animate what seems to have been conceived originally as a sequence of still images. Only in the final act does the setting amplify the drama as a grimy riverside light dapples the action.

Nor is Dooner consistently successful in getting his singers to act. Leo Nucci - late substitute for Giorgio Zancanaro - throws himself whole- heartedly at the title role, seeming to become more twisted as the opera progresses. The voice may be stiff, but the tone is secure, the phrases perfectly shaped so as to sharpen every emotion. Vocally, Young-Ok Shin has Gilda, so to speak, in the bag, yet she seems afraid to look fellow cast-members in the eye.

Francisco Araiza's Duke was bluff, secure but unsubtle: Alastair Miles and Claire Powell, both in good voice, made a murky pair of assassins. Simone Young, in her house debut, conducted with sure control of texture and pace.

At Sadler's Wells, English Touring Opera thrives on less grandeur, and Thomas de Mallet Burgess's new staging of La Boheme has plenty of energy. Burgess has worked at Covent Garden and seems to have the big-house habit of lining his singers across the stage so they interact with conductor and audience as much as with each other; but he obtains spirited performances. He sets the opera in Nazi-occupied Paris, which may help to explain the Bohemians' desperate frivolity, but also draws attention to the opera's inconsistencies. With their sensible pullovers and boxer shorts, these young men are comfortable, never short of wine or, probably, money from home.

Happily the cast is excellent. As Mimi, Christine Bunning looks and even sounds like a young Josephine Barstow. If the tone is sometimes hard, she never overdoes the plaintiveness. Geraint Jones's Rodolfo may look like Robbie Coltrane, but the voice has eclat; and the rest of the cast perform with impetuous warmth. Martin Andre gets good weight from ETO's slimline orchestra, and as the tour progresses, this succinct if unadventurous production will no doubt refine itself.

'Rigoletto' at ROH (071-240 1911) to 11 March. ETO at Sadler's Wells (071-278 8916) to 26 Feb

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