L'Amore Dei Tre Re, Opera Holland Park, London<br/>Carmen Jones, Royal Festival Hall, London

Opera Holland Park turns up the heat with the revival of an underrated gem, while 'Carmen Jones' fails to sizzle at the South Bank
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The Independent Culture

Monsoons notwithstanding, this has been a good summer for Opera Holland Park. While other companies have dabbled with musicals, OHP has calmly balanced core repertoire with two operatic rarities: Lakmé and L'amore dei tre re. Once the toast of America, Italo Montemezzi's violent homage to Tristan and Pelléas has four great roles, orchestration of silky velvet voluptuousness, a user-friendly duration of only 90 minutes, and a plot no more lurid than half a dozen household favourites. That it fell out of favour in the 1950s is, on this showing, baffling.

By way of balancing the extreme opulence of the score, Martin Lloyd-Evans's production is strikingly plain and severe. His characterisation is meticulously detailed, up to and including Aled Hall's brooding Flaminio (the fifth great role), Samantha Houston's anxious Handmaiden, and Lisa Crosato's affecting Act III cameo as the Young Woman.

Jamie Vartan's set, a brutalist edifice with suspended steps, discourages any scenery-chewing, which is just as well. In the role of the blind patriarch Archibaldo, here styled as Mussolini, Mikhail Svetlov looks like a man who enjoys throwing furniture around. With no tapestries to abuse, he has to settle for abusing Amanda Echalaz's Fiora, which he does with relish.

As the love/sex/hate-object of the three kings, Fiora must be magnetic enough to warrant the self-destructive erotic compulsions of Archibaldo, Manfredo (Olafur Sigurdarson), and Avito (Julian Gavin). Echalaz achieves this handsomely, with thrilling tone, athletic figure, and blazing eyes. Were confirmation of her potential needed, this is it. Gavin, a sometimes diffident performer, sings with freedom and acts with credible ease and tenderness. Despite Sigurdarson's apparent inability to bend at the waist – he moves sideways like a musclebound crab – he is a touching cuckold. In the pit, Peter Robinson conducts the City of London Sinfonia with suavity and urgency, while the chorus sings with impressive discipline.

"There's a little bit of Carmen in all women," reads the publicity for Jude Kelly's production of Carmen Jones. Oh really? Struggling up to the Royal Festival Hall with my seven-year-old in tow, unused to bumping or grinding anything other than my elbows or teeth, and with scant experience of pulling soldiers or other women's hair, I felt as unlike Carmen as it is possible to feel without undergoing gender-reassignment surgery. Pah! Of course, the point of Carmen is not her similarity to other women. It's her dissimilarity. Not that Oscar Hammerstein's 1943 rewrite makes much of this.

Instead of an incarnation of 19th-century exoticism, gypsy sister to Djamileh and Léïla, Hammerstein's Carmen is a small-town bad girl: high on sex appeal, low on loyalty, habitually late for work at the parachute factory, your basic pain in the arse. What little motivation there is for her behaviour in the opera is diluted in the musical, of which the best that can be said is that Bizet's melodies are more memorable than the cringe-making "dis"s and "dat"s of Hammerstein's ersatz patois. But the great irony of Carmen Jones is that the bits everyone loves to hum are all there in the original.

Musical comedy is a fiercely demanding discipline. You have to sing well, speak well and move well. In Kelly's lacklustre modern-dress production, only Sherry Boone (Cindy Lou) has the total package. It's not the prettiest voice, but she uses it beautifully and is never less than wholly engaged in putting across what emerges here as unusually strong and sympathetic character. As Joe and Husky Miller, siblings Andrew and Rodney Clarke are hampered by their classical training: confident in the middle range, unsure of how to handle the amplification of the high notes. Rodney belts them out regardless of his microphone. Andrew settles for a mournful falsetto. Both sound better unplugged.

In the title role, Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi has an attractive voice, Sabatier cheekbones and legs to die for, but is far too lethargic to be sexy. The X Factor semi-finalist Brenda Edwards (Pearl) delivers a pleasant account of "Beat out dat rhythm on a drum", but it doesn't take a Cowell or an Osbourne to recognise that Akiya Henry (Myrt) would make this number sizzle like it should. Together with Andee-Louise Hypolite (Frankie), Phillip Browne (Rum) and John Moabi (Dink), she provides an energy that is lacking elsewhere.

The chorus is strong; the Philharmonia, which alternates with the London Philharmonic for the duration of the run, is superb under John Rigby's brisk beat. Even so, if the object of this show is to showcase black talent while keeping the South Bank orchestras busy, why not just do the Bizet?

'L'amore dei tre re': Opera Holland Park (0845 230 9769) to Friday. 'Carmen Jones': Royal Festival Hall (0871 663 2584) to 2 September

Further reading: James Baldwin's review of Otto Preminger's 'Carmen Jones' in 'Notes of a Native Son' (Penguin)