Passion for a Spanish temptress

2011-03-04 10:20

With two productions of Carmen being presented in March and April in four cities, one can only wonder what it is that makes her so popular.

Of course, there is the much-loved music of Georges Bizet, with the Toreador Song, the Habanera and the Flower Song being among the finest and most popular in the operatic repertoire.

There is also the fascination with Spain as an exotic locale and the irresistible appeal of the headstrong nature of one of the most enduring female heroines in opera, Carmen the cigarette girl from Seville.

But the real reason is probably because this is one woman you won’t forget – not for the good she does, but for the bad.

The original story was written by Prosper Mérimée in 1854. He had probably discovered Carmen in a narrative poem by Alexander Pushkin called The Gypsies, which he found while in Russia and subsequently translated into French.

Whatever its source, it gave the world a fiery example of the femme fatale many women wanted to be but wouldn’t dare.

It is a perfect vehicle for sublimation, allowing the viewer to luxuriate in a sexual freedom few would really have the courage to try.

While many may root for the hero, Don José, ensnared as he is by the inexorable wiles of Carmen; he is, however, the one who deserts a faithful girlfriend, the army, and all his principles to join a band of brigands, merely to be sacrificed in the web Carmen has spun.

Carmen, though, is merely being true to her nature.

First presented at the Opera Comique in Paris in March 1875, Carmen was not well received, barely making 48 performances before closing.

It finally returned to great acclaim in Paris in 1883.

Unfortunately, Bizet was dead by then and never knew the great success his opera was to achieve.

In the story, Carmen is what would be called a troublemaker in today’s parlance. She is not only sexually available but uses men as they would like to use her, wilfully.

Arrested after causing a fight, she has to be taken to prison by Corporal Don José, whose village girlfriend, Micaëla, has arrived at the camp to bring him news of his mother.

However, Don José has been fatally smitten by Carmen and allows her to escape, for which he is imprisoned.

On his release, he goes in search of Carmen and finds her in the company of a band of brigands, who she persuades him to join.

However, like many relationships which begin in impulsive heat, she soon feels trapped by the domesticity he seeks and runs away to be with the toreador, Escamillo.

Don José tracks her down and begs her to return with him. She refuses and he stabs her to death. It is meaty stuff, tragic and spectacular to watch, enhanced immeasurably as it is by the music and the sweep of the story.

There have been numerous Carmen ballets created using Bizet’s music.

There have also been dozens of films, the best of which are 1954’s Carmen Jones which featured an all-black cast including Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte, and Francesco Rosi‘s 1984 masterpiece which starred Julia Migenes and Placido Domingo.

Of course, we have our own award-winning U-Carmen eKhayelitsha.

The Cape Town production is directed by Michael Williams, with Kamal Khan conducting the Cape Philharmonic.

The lead role of Carmen will be sung by Violina Anguelov, who thrilled audiences as Octavian in last year’s Der Rosenkavalier.

The male lead will be sung by the glamorous Argentinian Marcelo Puente. The choreography is by Carolyn Holden, and will feature members of her dance company, La Rosa.

Williams says modestly that he is “a meat-and-two-veg” kind of director, “and will present the opera in traditional milieu”.

He talks of “the third eye” of the director – all seeing, pulling everything together. He sees Carmen as “a high flyer, someone who takes chances, yet not superficial in any way, as is shown by the fact that she has two close friends who obviously think she is wonderful”.

The fact that his Micaëla, Zanne Stapelberg, is actually pregnant, adds interesting shading to the character, who has come to try and persuade Don José to toe the conventional line.

The Johannesburg production is presented by Opera Africa with imported principals and local singers Rouel Beukes and Kelebogile Boikanyo in the supporting roles.

Boikanyo says she is “loving working” with the director. “He trusts his artists, and allows them to bring their personality to the role.”

The leads will be sung by Cristina Nassif, well known in the US and UK, and American Noah Stewart, who has played lead roles at the San Francisco and Chicago opera houses. James Marvel directs and the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra will be under the baton of Timothy Myers.

The Durban production will be a semi-staged version featuring Anguelov from the Cape production as Carmen, and Matthew Overmeyer as Don José, Bronwyn Forbay as Micaëla, and Theo Mangongoma as Escamillo.

This production is directed by Williams with the KZN Philharmonic and the Playhouse Company Chorale, under the baton of Maestro Naum Rousine.

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