Antonio Gades & Carlos Saura
Teatro Real de Madrid
Teatro Real de Madrid, Spain

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Prosper Merimée published his novel in 1846. Georges Bizet premièred his opera in Paris in 1875. Antonio Gades and Carlos Saura filmed their version in 1983 and the success of the film led Gades to stage it in Paris the same year. Andalusian flamenco serves the drama well.

The performance online was recorded by Teatro Real de Madrid in 2011. The first-rate cast is headed by Vanesa Vento as Carmen, Angel Gil as Don José, Joaquín Mulero as her husband and Jairo Rodríguez as the bullfighter.

The performance opens with Bizet’s Overture but Bizet is heard only occasionally thereafter. The music is provided by live guitarists and taped music. The stage is bare. The production begins with the dance company in class, which is being taken by the dance director.

The lead dancers come out of the group to perform their solos and to take on the characters they will be playing. Carmen in blazing red takes centre stage. The dance director becomes Don José. There are two other men. One of them, cane-carrying, turn out to be her husband. (Only those who have read Merimée will know Carmen had a husband.) The other man will prove to be the toreador.

The atmosphere in the rehearsal room turns unpleasant, raucous, confrontational, physically threatening. Suddenly we are in the middle of the story. Carmen produces a knife and kills one of the women who is taunting her.

Don José arrests her but she seduces him and he lets her escape. He is stripped of his rank and imprisoned. Later, released, he is still in her thrall, doing her bidding. She is all-woman and he is her puppy dog, sexually aroused. (Bizet’s habanera is sung while she toys with him).

The story then stops for the company, age no barrier, to have a party and show their paces with flamboyant speedy footwork, rhythmic clapping, skirt ruffling, singing harsh folk ballads; all the things an audience would expect and want when they go to a flamenco dance show.

Carmen’s husband accuses Don José of cheating at cards and they fight with sticks. (Anybody who has seen Gades’s version of Lorca’s Blood Wedding will know Gades knows how to choreograph a fight.) Sticks are also used by the company to beat the floor and provide a musical accompaniment.

The husband is killed. Carmen removes her wedding ring and contemptuously throws it on his body. Vanesa Vento plays her throughout for the horribly unpleasant woman she is. Similarly, Jairo Rodríguez’s bullfighter, humourless, fierce-looking, arrogant, is singularly unlikeable.

Gades’s Carmen can be seen online on the EuroArts Channel and it’s well worth seeing and it’s for free.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch

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