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Carmen La Cubana at Sadler's Wells

Carmen La Cubana

15 August 2018 Suzanne Frost

George Bizet’s opera Carmen is one of the most popular and frequently performed operas in the world with songs like the "Habanera" and the "Toreador Song" as well known and instantly recognizable as number one pop songs. Consequently, Carmen has undergone a huge number of interpretations and re-imaginings, with directors worldwide searching for new and yet unexplored views on the age-old story. The good thing about Carmen though is the piece is rock solid – its dramaturgy, structure, narrative, and music are so ingeniously put together that it can take any retelling or experimentation. You can put Carmen in a trailer park, among Irish travellers, move her to Queens, NY or put her in a gorilla costume (hello Royal Opera House), make her a communist, a terrorist or a Bollywood dancer – she will emerge triumphantly, unscathed, like the true icon that she is.

Carmen La Cubana (c) Nilz Boehme

Carmen la Cubana
, the summer blockbuster at Sadler’s Wells, written and directed by Christopher Renshaw, places the story in pre-revolution Cuba. Renshaw takes inspiration from Carmen Jones, a 1943 musical version of the story by Oscar Hammerstein, later turned into a feature film, but he sticks to the Bizet score  - albeit channelled through a Latin American filter by none other than Hamilton musical director Alex Lacamoire. The Tony and Grammy winning musical mastermind is easily one of the best orchestrators of the moment, and what happens to Bizet’s music when you give it some Cuban fire is a joy. For the first time, Carmen speaks and sings in the language she was supposed to have. In Bizet’s French libretto she is sultry, in Spanish she is fierce. Lacamoire confidently changed the rhythms of those well-known mega hits so they now sound familiar and yet completely new at the same time. It is brazen, sometimes cheeky, sometimes sounds like tango, sometimes like a schmaltzy calzone and the energy, temperament and sensuality of the entirely Cuban cast creates real heat in the dark and air-conditioned auditorium.  
 
Carmen La Cubana (c) Nilz Boehme

Carmen La Cubana
premiered in 2016 at the Théâtre Châtelet in Paris and, as a rule of thumb, what comes out of the Châtelet is top-notch quality. The production is lavish, big, ambitious and well thought through. It just works. All the depth that lies in Prosper Mérimée’s story translates well into the new Latin American setting. The many influences – political, racial, religious – that come together in Cuba, the poverty, heated temperaments and latent misogyny, provide a rich ground for conflict – between classes, value systems, genders.
 
Carmen La Cubana (c) Nilz Boehme

Carmen’s libretto is full of dark foreshadowings and superstitious signs. Renshaw created a new character of La Señora, an old bruja skilled in ancient Afro-Carribean witchcraft and foreseeing the future. Apart from this little trick, Renshaw’s Carmen is a classic traditional retelling of the story. His Carmen fulfils all the usual clichés of red dress, long black curls and a flower in her hair. But when the drop dead gorgeous powerhouse Luna Manzanares Nardo opens her mouth with that surprisingly deep sultry voice of hers, you wish that more leading lady parts had been written for a mezzo. Her Carmen is not so much calculated seductress as simply unapologetic in her sexuality. She doesn’t really care if you like her. Tom Piper’s set of peeling paint, crumbling brick, and woodwork past its best brings lots of atmosphere and the charming ensemble throw themselves into spectacular dance scenes with infectious joy.  
 
Carmen La Cubana (c) Nilz Boehme

While Carmen can be seen as a feminist icon, most directors nowadays struggle with Mérimée’s plump and open misogyny, his simple good girl bad girl characterisation. Carmen is, ultimately, a male fantasy that reveals much more about the writer than about actual women. That is why many directors these days take a closer look at Don José, the mummy’s boy who is presented as a hapless victim of Carmen’s seductive power and doesn’t take well to being mocked. For modern audiences, Carmen has much more to say about masculinity, it is at the heart of it, a story about domestic violence. Margaret Atwood once said “men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them." This is Carmen in a nutshell.

Yet, Renshaw’s productions offers no thoughts on this. It is simple, neutral, traditional storytelling which puts all emphasis on Bizet’s undying music and the exuberant talent of the performers who set the stage on fire.
 
Carmen La Cubana is at Sadler’s Wells until 18 August.
 

 
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