Prosper Mérimée’s novella, Carmen, was not a success. When the author died, in 1870, a quarter-century after its publication, it would not have made the list of his notable achievements. With some minor adjustments to Mérimée’s plot, Georges Bizet changed all that with his 1875 opera; but, he – like Mérimée – was to die (just three months’ after Carmen’s premiere) without any inkling of the enduring worldwide popularity that was to follow. And, so, I came to this Cuban Carmen with both a sense of déjà vu and questioning the need for yet another adaptation of this overused story.
I am pleased to report that this energetic, colourful affair routed my doubts and won me over, much as Fidel Castro’s guerrilla forces overthrew President Batista’s army in the refreshed background narrative to this telling of the familiar tale. True to which, Carmen is a feisty, cigar-maker (albeit transported from Seville to the south-east of Cuba) caught up in a dalliance with one of Batista’s soldiers – José – who is engaged to Marilú (Bizet’s Micaëla).
Their journey to Havana by way of Santiago de Cuba is interrupted by meeting and accompanying a famous boxer, El Niño and his entourage, en route to a title fight with Kid Cowboy. To connect with Bizet’s narrative, for boxer read matador (El Niño replacing Escamillo) since bullfighting was banned in Cuba, from 1947. The rest of the tale follows the well-trodden path: Carmen ditches José for the boxer and while he fights, she is confronted by her hapless former lover with tragic consequences. Only, this version – being Cuban – introduces the novel concept of a post-curtain call coda in a brief burst of euphoric dance!
Christopher Renshaw and his creative team have opted for the Carmen Jones concept (from Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1943 stage musical) and fitted it neatly into a Cuban staging at the time of the 1959 Revolution. Bizet’s familiar score has been superbly orchestrated and arranged with a distinctly Cuban musical flavour by Alex Lacamoire (of Hamilton fame), played live from the back of the stage by an all-Cuban band; and the group choreography – by Roclan González Chávez – is a fusion of cha-cha-cha, mambo, danzón, rumba and salsa, performed by an outstanding, tightly-knit group of ten dancers, amongst whom the striking (tall and bald) Katia Aislen Pérez Grenot was always, eye-catchingly, to the fore.
Luna Manzanares Nardo brought an exotic and fiery quality to the title role, combining a devil-may-care attitude to her character’s sexual morals with a resolute and dignified self-belief; her Carmen is both seductive and detached. Nardo sings with a deceptively comfortable, yet commanding timbre (the famous Habanera is delightfully different). Joaquín García Mejías was commandingly realistic as the heavyweight boxer, El Niño (the nickname for Niño Valdés – a real-life Cuban world title contender, who became a close friend of Castro), built appropriately, and walking with a swaggering air of confidence and a broad, beaming smile. He also sings soulfully with a low range appropriate to a heavyweight pugilist.
Cristina Rodríguez Pino has a crystalline, lyrical vocal quality that enhanced Marilú’s long-suffering goodness. Her solos, a reprise of the Habanera and Mi José, were excellent vocal highlights. Saeed Mohamed Valdés brought strong dramatic contrasts to the disillusioned soldier, José, and Leonid Simeón Baró was suitably intimidating as Sergeant Moreno. Comic relief was supplied by El Niño’s two stooges, Rico (Jorge Enrique Caballero) and Tato (Maikel Lirio) plus their unlikely girlfriends, Cuqui (Laritza Pulido García) and Paquita (Rachel Pastor Pérez).
A major innovation in the Cuban Carmen Dynamic is the narrating character of La Señora, who pops up all over Cuba, with interventions that provide space and clarity, as well as linking Renshaw’s Cuban experience to the Afro-American religion, Santería (literally, “the worship of the saints”), which emerged from the Caribbean slave trade. The acclaimed Cuban songstress, Albita Rodríguez was a commanding presence in this new, yet pivotal, role.
Far from being just one more interpretation of the ubiquitous Carmen, this Cuban version is a unique retelling of the popular narrative, superbly performed. Music is key to this production’s success since Lacamoire has not altered a note composed by Bizet but, has arranged the score into so many rhythmic styles (never repeating any of them), to create a refreshingly new musical experience. It is like a makeover for a much-loved friend in a similar vein to Rodion Shchedrin’s present to his wife, Maya Plisetskaya, with The Carmen Suite. Like Shchedrin, Lacamoire has reclad Bizet’s melodies in a variety of fresh instrumental accents, but where Cuban brass and percussion rule.
Carmen La Cubana is in residence at Sadler’s Wells until 18th August before continuing its world tour. It is well worth catching both for Carmen aficionados and those looking to experience a different take on this well-worn theme.