Carmen Jones

Oscar Hammerstein II, music by Georges Bizet
Presented by arrangement with Josef Weinberger Limited on behalf of R&H Theatricals
Royal Festival Hall

Publicity photo

In 1875 thirty-six year old Bizet, depressed and disillusioned by the adverse reception his new opera Carmen had received from a scandalised 19th Century Parisian public, died of a heart attack, never knowing what a prodigious success it would turn out to be, and how many diverse versions would later be produced. In London alone, this summer, a revival will be staged at the ENO, and already the raunchy “in yer face” overtly sexy dance version The Car Man, devised by Matthew Bourne is playing at Sadlers Wells prior to a national tour, while here director Jude Kelly’s Carmen Jones is one of the opening productions for the newly refurbished and re-opened Festival Theatre. There have even been several versions of ‘Carmen on Ice’ in the past, which seems a strange contradiction for such a hot and steamy tale of sex, love, jealousy and murder.

Originally based on a short story by Prosper Merimée about a tempestuous Spanish gypsy working in a cigarette factory, Oscar Hammerstein II adapted the now classic opera into a stage musical, transferred the setting to a parachute factory in the American south and, in 1943, it opened on Broadway with an all black cast where it ran for over five hundred performances and has been a classic in its own right ever since.

Bizet thought he was incorporating an old Spanish folk song into his score – the Habenera – a song which encapsulates Carmen’s attitude to life and men - “You go for me and I’m taboo, but if you’re hard to get I go for you” with its warning message of danger and destruction – but in fact the song originally came from Cuba, and Kelly has set her production in Latin America, coming full circle, so to speak.

Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi is a Carmen devoid of compassion and sentiment; sure of her power over men and her ability to destroy them she struts and postures sensuously and seductively with her flame red dress slashed almost to the waist - and she sings divinely too. Fatalistically she also expects her own destruction and finally accepts the death that she knew was waiting for her. Rodney Clarke is equally arrogant as the prize-fighter Husky Miller, expecting women to fall at his feet and then discarding them, and his brother Andrew is the lovelorn soldier Joe, torn between love for his mother and his childhood sweetheart, and his obsession with Carmen. He is consumed by a jealousy which finally brings him to murder.

Sherry Boone is Cindy Lou, the abandoned sweetheart, and she almost stops the show with her heartfelt and heartrending – rendition of ‘My Joe’, mourning her lost love, sung with such feeling that I had to wipe away the tears, and fully deserving the cheers and applause she received.

Musical performances are shared equally between the London Philharmonic and the Philharmonia - superbly played of course, but to my mind this is where the production falls down. Admittedly there are more musicians than there are in the forty-strong cast and of course it needs a large space to accommodate them, but placing them in an orchestra pit centre stage might emphasise the quality of the music and musicians but does nothing to help the actors who are restricted to the surrounding walkways, and while I am sure the instrumentalists are delighted to be attired in casual dress for a change, the kaleidoscope of colour is too much of a good thing, very distracting and losing focus.

Choreographer Rafael Bonachela has provided some very original intricate dance sequences, a mixture it seems of Martha Graham style and street dance, and performed brilliantly by ten sinuously athletic dancers.

Overall – a glorious score, brilliantly played and exquisitely sung, and a fascinatingly dramatic story of love, lust and jealousy – just a pity about the staging.

This review was first published in Theatreworld Internet Magazine.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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