L'Arlesiana, Opera Holland Park, London

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The Independent Culture

Francesco Cilea's opera L'Arlesiana, of which Opera Holland Park has just unveiled its new production, can make or break a tenor's reputation. Its 1897 premiere launched Caruso. Later, it consolidated the career of Tito Schipa.

I don't think it's fanciful to mention Sean Ruane, last year's Ruggero in La Rondine, in the same breath. As Federico - the lovelorn, suicidal depressive whose adoration of a nebulous Arlesienne damsel (significantly, we never see her) makes of Daudet's play a tragedy of Thomas Hardy dimensions - this magnificent young tenor serves up one of the most glorious sounds to be heard on any British stage. He doesn't milk it; he doesn't shout it. But he pours forth Federico's calling-card aria "Solita storia nel pastore" with a passion and beauty that locates him slap-bang on the "Three Tenors" plane. Worth hearing? You bet.

There is an astonishing moment when Federico's supposedly imbecile kid brother (Zoë Todd) first speaks and is reconciled to his rejecting mother Rosa Mamai (Rosalind Plowright, in a dominating performance that gives this the laden feel of a Lorca play). Combined with Ruane's performance, this bringsL'Arlesiana round. True, it launches promisingly, thanks to a muted yet threatening overture, tantalisingly built by Charles Peebles and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and to Baldassare, the old sage with visions of the healing power of the mountain hinterland, to whose memories and warnings Ukrainian-born Vassily Savenko brings a Boris Godunov-like richness.

But then - despite fabulous woodwind pairings to rival Tchaikovsky: what riches might Cilea's last two operas reveal? - it sags. Peter Rice's set, all scattered panniers and wine vats, looks too much like a parody of Northleach's Cotswold Farm Park. Plowright - who famously outfaced (as Queen Elizabeth I) Dame Janet Baker's Mary, Queen of Scots, and whose solo recital on 3 August should be riveting - growls her way round the front-stage pond-edge, seeing off any threat from Peebles's full-bodied orchestra. Kate Ladner only narrowly establishes the foster daughter, Vivetta, as a credible character.

But after Cilea's beguiling Intermezzo à la Mascagni - full of careful and affectionate detail - Jamie Hayes's production suddenly breaks through. Nicholas Todorovic's nasty Metifio indulges in some unnerving Mascagnian fisticuffs. Momentarily "cured", Ruane, capturing the hapless hero's mood-swing, adopts a lyric vein of considerable beauty and charm. Ladner relaxes into her role. All seems well.

But in Italian opera idylls don't last. Memory-obsessed, Federico tops himself. Plowright's horrid Bernarda Alba muses on the mess she's engendered by shearing her precious lamb of his dream. My abiding memory, however, is of Savenko's old shepherd, spinning his ominous Aesop's fables: musically and dramatically, he recalls Debussy's world-weary Arkel. The curse crosses generations. Times don't change.

In rep to 18 July (0845 230 9769)