Judge Dylan Charles reviews a new version of a grand old opera. Minnie Pearl was nowhere to be found.
L'amour Est un Oiseau Rebelle
Carmen is one of the most popular operas in the world, with songs that have gone beyond the opera itself and have embedded themselves into popular culture. Dimpho Di Kopane, a South African theater company, has put its own stamp on Carmen with U-Carmen, putting on a show that is both unique and familiar.
Facts of the Case
U-Carmen takes the story of Carmen out of its original setting in 19th century Seville and plants it in modern-day South Africa. Jongikhaya (Andile Tshoni) is a sergeant stationed in Khayelitsha, a township. He meets Carmen (Pauline Malefane), the wild and free township girl. He falls in love with her. She falls in love with Lulamile Nkomo (Zweilungile Sidloyi), a famous singer. Jongikhaya fights to keep something that can't be kept.
It's an opera, so people die by the truckloads.
U-Carmen takes a few liberties with Bizet's original opera, but successfully adapts the play to modern times. Not only is the setting changed, but the original French has been translated into Xhosa, a language indigenous to South Africa. This leads to some oddities, as Xhosa contains clicking. On the whole, the translation efforts were successful; I didn't hear many compromises made to the music itself and the alterations to the libretto kept the original spirit.
The company has trimmed the opera, though. Key songs, such as the toreador song, are completely gone. Micaela's part (here named Nomakhaya) has been significantly trimmed, and even Escamillo (Lulamile in this version) loses almost all of his songs. I never particularly liked Micaela myself; she was always bland compared to Carmen and her songs always lacked the same fiery passion. But to remove the toreador song! And the duet between Escamillo and Don Jose (Jongikhaya) is also gone. The prelude and the interludes are also gone. Purists and nitpickers are bound to be grumpy about some of the songs that have been removed.
There are also a few scenes that have been added to give backstory to the characters. For example, in Bizet's original opera, it was never fully explained why Don Jose and his mother had a falling out. Here, an explanation is given in flashback. I have no real problem with these additions to the story as it fleshes out these characters and helps to balance out the characterization removed with the songs.
While I am hardly the best judge of musical quality, I felt that the company did an exemplary job. Andile Tshoni gives strength to a role that might otherwise be drowned out by Carmen's presence. Pauline Malefane as Carmen was also very well done. The only problem I had was with Zweilungile Sidloyi, who did very little in the way of singing and didn't have much in the way of presence. This was not helped by the fact that his part had been severely trimmed.
The extras are trifles, really, a making-of featurette that gives a limited amount of information, and interviews with the director, Malefane, and the translator that are just expanded versions of the interviews they gave for the documentary.
This is, by no means, the definitive Carmen on film. For that, check out Francesco Rosi's production which has the opera in full, and is beautifully shot and sung. Rather, U-Carmen adeptly makes Carmen its own, adding aspects of South African culture and language that showcase South African talents. This is a definite rental for any fan of Carmen.
U-Carmen is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
• Making U-Carmen Featurette
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