ArtsEmerson's "U Carmen": Carmen's Marimbas

Ayanda Tikolo, Luvo Rasemeni, Pauline Malefane, Mhlekazi (Whawha) Mosiea,
Bongiwe Mapassa, Noluthando Boqwana & Zoleka Mpotsha in "U Carmen"
(photo: John Page)
ArtsEmerson's current offering is “U Carmen”, created and performed by the South African theatre company The Isango Ensemble, so memorable for their production last season of Mozart's “Magic Flute”. This time around they've adapted the popular 1875 opera by Bizet, setting it not in the bullrings of Spain but, as the program says, “a land which somehow borders France, Spain and South Africa”. (Elsewhere in the past in print it was identified as the Capetown township of Khayelitsha). At 100 minutes including a twenty minute intermission, it's a very truncated version of the original “Carmen”, which might profit from being presented as a one-acter. It must also be said that Mozart lent himself more to marimbas than does Bizet. One missed the more dramatic orchestrations that this story of passion necessitates.

This adaptation follows the narrative of the original opera reasonably closely, though some familiarity with it would be of benefit. Whether it was due to diction issues or the balance between musicians and singers, much of what remained of the libretto was incomprehensible, and might as well have been sung not in English but in Xhosa, one of the eleven official languages in South Africa. (Then again, perhaps this was a blessing given some of the intelligible lyrics such as “in this neighborhood your timing wasn't good”). But the singing was on the same extraordinarily level as it was on the company's visit last year in solos, duets, trios and choral work. While all were excellent, the standouts were Pauline Malefane as Carmen, the gypsy girl, and Mhlekazi (Whawha) Mosiea as Don Jos√©, corporal of the dragoons. Much of the singing was a cappella this time around.

Under the direction of Mark Dornford-May (who was also responsible for the adaptation from a translation by Rory Bremner), The Isango Ensemble shone once again, especially in the fabulous choreography by Lungelo Ngamlana and the lively Music Arrangement by Conductor Mandisi Dyantyis. The effective Lighting was by Chloe Kenward, with the set (unattributed) the identical one utilized last season for “The Magic Flute”.

Any visit from this talented ensemble is a welcome one, and “U Carmen” is a production that's been identified with the company from its inception. One looks forward to savoring an annual performance as the company develops and expands its repertoire. For now, one can sit back and admire the gypsy in their souls, and, since it's another unshod performance, their soles.

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