Carmen, Royal Opera House, London <br/> Made Up, Jermyn Street Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Designed by Tanya McCallin, Francesca Zambello's handsome production of Carmen has been built to last. Those who thrilled to her Royal Albert Hall production of La Bohème will recognise the populous backdrop. Pick-pockets and priests collide in the sun-baked square between the barracks and the cigarette factory. There are tight-buttocked matadors in sparkly suits, acrobats, altar boys, urchins, beggars, and a water trough where broad-backed slatterns lazily sponge their dusty décolletages. There's an orange tree (fake), a horse (real), and a chicken (also real). There's even a donkey, Pollyanne, who comports herself with unfailing dignity.

As an exercise in forward-planning, you can't fault Carmen. Just think of the 10th or 11th revival. The abseiling in Act III should make the dimmest of Don Josés seem like James Bond, while entering on a horse will lend the tiniest Escamillo a towering presence, albeit briefly. But the balance between spectacle and intimacy is less secure here than it was in La Bohème, and the current leads have no such shortcomings. For all the pizzazz of Zambello's painterly Seville, I found myself longing to see Anna Caterina Antonacci (Carmen) and Jonas Kaufmann (Don José) on a smaller, darker stage, with nothing to distract from their passion for each other, or from Antonio Pappano's visceral account of the score. Instead, two productions unfold in parallel: one a lavish tribute to grand opera, the other an intimate danse sauvage.

Looks aside, neither Antonacci nor Kaufmann are obvious casting. Her speciality is Monteverdi, his is lieder. I could happily devote a paragraph to the beauty of her collar-bone or the curve of his jaw, but the impact of their artistry is more profound. With naturally light voices, both are forced to concentrate on the text, to shape their phrases as artfully as they can, and to make Carmen and Don José more than a stabbable vamp and a slappable wimp. This has little to do with traditional great singing, and everything to do with the direct communication and frank emotionalism of the great cabaret chanteurs and chanteuses. As Kaufmann conveys the increasingly sharp disconnect between the dutiful mother's boy and the man who left Navarra with a murder record, and Antonacci dissects the vulnerabilities behind Carmen's casual cynicism, the Habanera, Seguidilla and Flower Song are newly poignant, supple and sensual.

In the pit too, Pappano has reinvented this hackneyed work. Vicious tempi and delicately sculpted phrasing are a daring and demanding combination and the result is often shockingly sexual. Unfortunately this dynamism is not unanimously reflected in the supporting cast. Norah Amsellem's shrill, scatter-brained Michaela is comprehensively outclassed by Elena Xanthoudakis's brilliant Frasquita, while Ildebrando D'Archangelo's stiff Escamillo is clearly compromised by hippophobia. Jacques Imbrailo's easy Morales is a rare treat among the wooden soldiers, while Jean-Paul Fouchécourt's Le Remendado is a useful reminder of how the French language can captivate and beguile. Somewhat guiltily, I realise that I invariably favour less overtly glamorous productions. But for the complexity and honesty of what happens between Antonacci and Kaufmann, and the blistering energy and intelligence of Pappanpo's conducting, I'll take as many urchins and acrobats as you care to throw at me.

Sweetly seedy and barely bigger than a hat-box, the Jermyn Street Theatre has no space for farmyard animals or flamenco dancers. Which makes it ideal for four fearless comedians, a pianist happy to improvise in the style of anyone from Scarlatti to Steve Reich, a quick-witted clarinettist, and a well-lubricated audience, sorry, chorus. It is safe to say that if you don't enjoy mildly saucy Radio 4-style puns, have never marvelled at the skill of the Whose Line Is It Anyway? team, have a horror of audience participation, and can't tell your Purcell from your Piazzola, Impropera's current show is not for you. If, however, Humphrey Lyttelton is your hero and Josie Lawrence your pin-up, I cannot recommend Made Up highly enough.

This Wednesday saw the first (and last) performance of The Porous Head-Hunter of Buenos Aires: the zarzuela-esque culmination of an evening in which David Pearl improvised a Schubert lied about a lost yak, Susan Bissatt bade a bel canto farewell to her dog, Niall Ashdown delivered a simultaneous translation of Morag McClaren's magnificent performance of a hyperbolic Prokofiev aria on a dust-buster, and all four improvised a contrapuntal chat-up line in the style of Handel, accompanied brilliantly by Anthony Ingle and Peter Furniss. If the Christmas shopping gets too much for you, and Carmen is out of your price-range, Impropera is the perfect operatic pick-me-up.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

'Carmen' (020 7304 4000) to 8 Jan; 'Made Up' (020 7287 2875) to Sat

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