Carmen, King's Head, Islington, London Peter and the Wolf, Royal Festival Hall, London

OperaUpClose veer towards greatest-hits territory while a lupine concert holds toddlers transfixed

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The Independent Culture

A bouncer at the opera? It must be rough around here. And now there's a woman singing on the tables, and a fight is breaking out. Either Islington is not as genteel as it thinks, or OperaUpClose are at it again, knocking the stuffing out of the repertory. It's the latter, of course, and this time the company is picking the meat off the bones of Bizet's Carmen: that stony-faced chap on the door of the King's Head, so obliging to encumbered customers, is law-abiding Don José, as unimpressed by the table-top temptress as he is keen to keep his job.

At 45 minutes each way, this sawn-off production swings dangerously close to greatest-hits territory, Carmen herself belting through three big numbers back to back faster than you can say picador, and there isn't a bullring in sight. This Escamillo's raffish courage is tested by his jump from the prison van, five years into a 15-year stretch, his return to the thieves' kitchen heralded by a Toreador Song ringtone. The setting is here-ish and now-ish, and the job that will make the ruffians' fortunes is a raid on an incoming vessel stuffed with heroin.

This is all a long way from Seville, in short, and further still from Prosper Mérimée's novella, which itself lent only a few elements to Bizet's librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. The director, Rodula Gaitanou, and the librettist, Ben Cooper, have taken up the baton in this musical relay race, and their sprint has some wit but also misses chances: when Carmen foretells her own future, there are no cards, no horoscopes, just a spliff. Surely there's an app for that?

Escamillo, taut and tattooed, and, as played by Nicholas Dwyer in the first of two casts, jutting a chin that could cut glass, looks every inch the street-fighting man, but there are imperfections in the voice that show up at such close quarters. With only a piano and guitar for support (Elspeth Wilkes and Rosie Hopkins), Christopher Diffey as José has the same problem, but as the chippy molls Frasquita and Mercedes, Fleur de Bray and Olivia Barry have some appealing vocal moments. Christina Gill's Carmen is a diva of the Tina Turner school – feline and voluptuous, singing through her nerves, her frank stare Medusa-like. All in all, it's more whistle-stop than wondrous, but like its heroine, it takes more than a few setbacks to drag Carmen down.

No bouncers required at the Royal Festival Hall, when, on four occasions over two days, bright-eyed children and grateful elders swarmed in for an hour with Peter and the Wolf. The fresh young ensemble Aurora did not flinch at playing Prokofiev's enduring piece eight times in a row, twice at each concert, once with the customary narration, and once as a soundtrack to the Oscar-winning animated film by Suzie Templeman.

Mackenzie Crook, narrating, started promisingly, holding up an old cassette recorder with a curator's gloves, recalling that his only tape when small was Peter and the Wolf, and describing the joy of live orchestral music: "It's like sucking the juice straight from an orange, while it's still on the tree". But his was a lacklustre reading, in a version of the story not noticeably improved by Simon Armitage.

My cellist companion, eight this week, declared his preferred performance to be the second, accompanying the film. This strikes out on its own with a frozen lake, an inexplicably flightless bird and a right-on ending, with high comedy and terror in equal measure. Impressively, among the most attentive of the listeners were toddlers, transfixed. If they can take 50 minutes of classical music in their little strides now, that's the Southbank Centre's audience development all buttoned up. Fingers crossed.


'Carmen' (020-7478 0160) to 12 May

Classical choice

In a massive undertaking at the Royal Festival Hall, Daniel Barenboim conducts the Staatskapelle Berlin in Bruckner's three last symphonies over three nights. Programmes also include Mozart's Piano Concertos No 24 (Mon) and 22 (Fri), the conductor as soloist, the vast 8th Symphony is played alone on Tuesday. Listen out on Thursday for details of this year's BBC Proms (13 Jul to 8 Sep).