|A scene from Carmen la Cubana
Photo: © Johan Persson
At Sadlers Wells there is about to be the UK premiere run of performances of Carmen la Cubana. The show is an adaptation of the Carmen story, but with the action taking place in Cuba rather than Seville. Yannick Le Maintec of Le Monde reviewed the show in Paris in April 2016 at the Théâtre du Châtelet. We are publishing his review (*) here in English, as a curtain-raiser to the London shows:
Paris, Théâtre du Châtelet. In place of the curtain, there’s a huge Cuban flag. The stage décor is no less vast, we see the ruins of a colonial building. The action takes place in 1958 in Santiago de Cuba at the time of the revolution. We follow the love story of Carmencita, daughter of a prostitute, and of an American soldier. José, a soldier in Batista’s army, is under instructions to keep her under lock and key, but he falls under the cigar-maker’s spell and sets her free. A fight with his boss ensues, and José leaves him for dead. The couple flee to Havana, at the other end of the country.
Carmen’s love affairs, however, tend not to last longer than six months. She becomes easily bored, and her heart will soon be in thrall to El Niño, king of the boxing ring. Is this story is starting to ring any bells? Too right. It’s Carmen, Bizet’s opera after the novella by Prosper Mérimée. Carmen La Cubana is the Cuban adaptation of Carmen Jones, the Oscar Hammerstein II musical. This Châtelet premiere has kept some elements of the Broadway show, the bright lights and a certain gaudy loudness, even though the music does draw its direct inspiration from Bizet. Transplanted to Cuba, there is more of the daemonic in the main character. From the Royal Factory of Seville to the cigar factories of Cuba, our crossing of the Atlantic has struck land where Columbus did, in the West Indies. The designs for the first act seem to allude to the smoke rings on the classic blue Gitanes packets which hooked generations of the French on smoking. The gypsy girl becomes a mulatto, a “fille de joie” as in Mérimée, and the show also revives the myth that premium Cuban cigars used to be rolled out on the thighs of the (female) cigar-makers.
The Carmen myth has been put through this evolution, maybe even this revolution, by director Christophe Renshaw, and it all makes eminent sense. The fact is that Bizet himself never witnessed Carmen as we now know it. The spoken dialogue of the comic opera was replaced after his death by sung recitatives written by Guiraud and Halévy for triumphant performances at the Vienna Opera in 1875. By abandoning them and returning to spoken dialogue, Carmen La Cubana brings the show back into the musical comedy fold. At last a Carmen where the language is Spanish, albeit Cuban Spanish – which certainly brings an earthiness to the dialogue.
The musical numbers had already benefited from Hammerstein’s adaptation; all that was needed was to shepherd them across the Malecón highway and bring them to Cuba. The “air du toréador” (he’s a torero, rather more glorious than Mérimée’s “picador”) becomes a salsa for a boxer, weathering the punches it gets from Joaquin Garcia Merjas, former singer of Pupy and Manolito y Su Trabuco. The “Chanson Bohème” brings Cuban drums to the fore (“Oyé Mi Ritmo De Tambor”) thanks to Albita who is both a perfect Señora and a Yoruba priestess. The (Don) José is Joel Prieto, a fine Hispano-Puerto Rican tenor, more ardent than perfect; his fiancée Marilù, the Micaela of opera is played by the enchanting Portuguese soprano Camarinha – these two take us back into a more recognizably operatic context. There is good reason to enthuse about the mambos and ballets of the cabaret El Gato Negro, somewhere between Broadway and Tropicana. The managers Tato and Rico have somehow escaped from a Disney cartoon, whereas the inseparable Paquita and Cuqui and the grotesque Kid Cowboy are all happy characters from operetta, and their lightness and joy provide a nice contrast with the trudge of fate.
Perhaps it is best not to ponder too much on why it is that the Habanera has been weighed down and misconstrued. Surely, returning the Habanera to its native land should have been an opportunity for a revelation. Laurent Bury has said that the habanera, as a combination of learned and popular art, “is an astonishing and hypnotic kind of mechanical repetition”. So if you leave out the hypnotic and the mechanical, not much remains. Despite the repressed Habanera, Carmencita as a character needs no time at all to make her mark. The popular singer Luna Manzanares puts all her Cubanism to the service of the character. This Cuban Carmen is everything that Hammerstein had imagined, and more: the idea to place the gypsy into an Afro-American context actually makes a success of it that goes beyond what he can have dreamst of. Bizet’s Carmen was a forerunner of the independent and strong woman of today. So the act of removing her from the palaces and the world of grand opera, gives this “Carmen la mulata” insolence, freedom, humour and love. And an undeniable sense of her destiny.