Opera: Verdi Festival: Giovanna d'Arco Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

As if to stamp their considerable talents on the proceedings while the going was still good - that is, before a note had been sung, before the torpor of Temistocle Solera's libretto had set in, and before the starry maid herself had descended with bloody banner unfurled - Philip Prowse (director / designer) and Daniele Gatti (conductor) took hold of the prelude to Verdi's Giovanna d'Arco (Joan of Arc) and made of it the single most dramatic statement of the evening.

Against tensile tremolandi and the thunder of lightning-streaked fortissimi, the curtains parted to reveal Prowse's monumental "war memorial": an eyeful of stone and sculpture, man, beast and cannon frozen in "glorious" combat, the legacy of war right up to and beyond the time of the opera's composition. A heroic edifice.

But, even as the music subsided into a reassuring woodwind-led andante pastorale and the warrior maid was already a vision in our mind's eye, great swathes of silk from the floor of the monument were slipping away to reveal the carnage, the mangled bodies, the bloody stains, the awful cost of heroism and immortality. And so the opera began, and the drama effectively ended.

But we must put Verdi's fatal flaws into some kind of perspective. Already he was, if not master, then certainly a skilled exponent of expressing private passions in a public context, of concentrating the drama of the individual within the grander arena of the whole. But, in 1845, the tunes were still jauntily, rudely, popularist, and the texts - not least this one - laughable. So what to do? Pretend it's Schiller? Philip Prowse was not about to try. If you can't beat them, join them. Take the people's opera off the streets and into the theatre, make it the visual equivalent of those brassy streetwise tunes. Be operatic, parodistically, campily, operatic. Hit your principals with follow-spots, frame your audacious set-pieces in a painstaking copy of the gold-leafed Royal Opera House proscenium, make it look painterly, statuesque - fabulous. And that it did. But like the confetti that rained down through the gaudy canopies of the coronation scene, it was just so much tissue in the wind. Banners counted for more than people in this show, banners upstaged people in this show.

June Anderson's Giovanna grew so attached to hers, she fell over it at one point. What had she come as? White, blood-stained frock, golden Rossetti tresses, aimlessly tripping hither, tripping thither like a cross between Lilian Gish and Isadora Duncan in the "golden silents" version of Lucia di Lammermoor. One long mad scene. Saint or diva? Saint and diva. This lady hears voices all right, but they're all her own. Which doesn't leave the character anywhere to go but sky-high into the realms of silliness.

Vocally, Anderson is in better shape than she was on her last visit here, but it's such an unappealing sound, pained and languid in inflection, communicating little or no connection between the letter and the spirit of the coloratura. Not all the notes were quite there (pitch is a recurrent problem, despite her irritating habit of coming at them by stealth from below) - but I'd have willingly sacrificed more of the technique, such as it now is, for even a modicum of warmth and heart in the singing.

Vladimir Chernov's Giacomo (Giovanna's father) to some extent compensated with easily the most beautiful and compassionate music in the piece (early rehearsals for the paternal endearments of Traviata and Rigoletto). Chernov sings on the interest rather than the capital and, like the tenor Dennis O'Neill (as the French king, Carlo VII), he'll try the subtle, stylish (and more difficult) option even when it doesn't bring him much thanks.

Lukewarm on the vocal front, then, but piping hot in the pit, where a characteristically galvanic and articulate Gatti succeeded in putting the rhythmic spice, the fizz, the fervour and phrasal sweep back into music which is more often than not denied it. He believed, the production didn't. Which left us with window-dressing - lots of it.

n Further performances 7.30pm tomorrow and Saturday, then 2, 5 July (also broadcast live on BBC Radio 3) at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2. Booking: 0171-304 4000

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