OPERA / Women's work is never sung: Nick Kimberley on the heroines of Covent Garden's current revivals of Verdi's Attila and Puccini's Tosca

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By denying the values we define as feminine, women who kill threaten the symbolic foundations of our culture. Opera, ever eager to probe at the margins of rationality, has made good use of the femme (literally) fatale. To be sure, most of them pay the ultimate price for their transgressions and Lucia, Tosca, Lulu and their sisters are dispatched for their pains.

But what of Odabella, the virgin warrior who brings Verdi's Attila to a chilling climax by murdering the eponymous Hun? She not only lives to tell the tale, but, in Elijah Moshinsky's 1990 Royal Opera production, she towers over the corpse, triumphantly daring us to condemn her. Even by the standards of a genre that has raised incoherence to the status of a guiding principle, the narrative of Attila is not the most coherent, and it could perhaps be argued that Odabella only survives by narrative default; but survive she does, proudly refuting claims that opera's only use for women is as hapless victims.

Attila is a genre piece, but it has the courage of its convictions, and so must any production. Musically there can be few complaints about this revival. Elizabeth Connell's Odabella is vocally fiery, physically statuesque: exactly what the role requires. In another cast, her performance might persuade you that the opera should bear Odabella's name. Here, though, Samuel Ramey's Attila is superb. Always more interesting on stage than on record, Ramey brings a hint of dignity to Hunnish bloodthirstiness: exactly the kind of noble savage Verdi had in mind. In smaller roles, Giorgio Zancanaro and Dennis O'Neill counter stage stiffness with thrilling voices; while Edward Downes, occasionally too refined in early Verdi, conducts with due brashness.

Michael Yeargan's sets deploy screens that, iris-like, reveal or conceal the stage: a neat concept that, in practice, becomes distracting, especially when the singers receive insufficient direction. Tidiness is at odds with the musical style; Attila requires the untidy delirium a David Alden would supply, yet the sheer power of voices and orchestra sweeps most objections aside.

As you might expect when the costumes are designed by Marcel Escoffier, there is more than a hint of culinary opera about John Cox's 1990 Covent Garden staging of Puccini's Tosca, using Renzo Mongiardino's sets for Zeffirelli's 1964 production. We are asked to admire the monumental scenery, and not to worry that it too often belittles the characters. Only Catherine Malfitano's Tosca has the stature to resist. This is a Tosca with plenty of chest, secure at top volume, touching at those few piano moments allowed her. As Tosca struggles to shape her life like a stage production, Malfitano captures her infantile feverishness.

To an extent, the villain of the piece, Scarpia, is less a character than a diabolus ex machina, a self- professed Iago who embodies the evil necessary to set things in motion. Gregory Yurisich, made up to resemble Tito Gobbi (Zeffirelli's original Scarpia), looks impressive but, lacking the devilish timbres, sounds simply decent. Alberto Cupido makes a coarse Cavaradossi, without the necessary vocal and physical swagger. On the other hand, Daniel Oren conducts with panache, relishing the leer with which Puccini punishes Tosca for daring to think she can control her destiny. Where Verdi permits us to witness Odabella's triumph, Puccini only allows us to contemplate Tosca's long fall to destruction. I know which of the two operas gets my vote.

Further performances: 'Attila' 19, 22, 25, 28, 30 June, 3 July; 'Tosca' 21, 23, 26 June. Royal Opera House, London WC2 (071-240 1911)