Georges Bizet introduced Carmen to the stage in Paris on March 3, 1875. At the time, the daring, four-act musical melodrama was roundly panned by the critics, but what do they know? Its popularity has endured to the present, nonetheless, and it remains one of the most frequently performed operas. Little good this belated success did for its composer, as the bitterly-disappointed Mr. Bizet dropped dead of a heart attack less than three months after the show opened, on his wedding anniversary, at the tender age of 36.
Hollywood has enjoyed a long love affair with Carmen which began soon after
the arrival of moving pictures, starting in 1915 when Cecil B. DeMille released it as a silent flick. A remake arrived less than three years later, the first of a neverending string of screen revivals of the enduring classic.
A noteworthy adaptation was Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones, which featured Dorothy Dandridge’s Oscar-nominated performance in the titular role. Another was The Wild, Wild Rose (1960), starring Grace Chang, and sung in Mandarin Chinese. Later, celebrated tenor Placido Domingo would play Don Jose in the 1984 version.
More recently, bootylicious Beyonce’ took a turn as the irresistible heroine in MTV’s Carmen: A Hip Hopera (2001), an unrecognizable overhaul of the original production into a ghetto fabulous fantasy. Now, from South Africa, we have U-Carmen, a fairly faithful interpretation of the source material, except for the fact that the songs are sung in native Xhosa instead of French.
Voluptuous Pauline Malefane more than holds her own vocally while strutting her stuff as the ill-fated, femme fatale at the center of the familiar tragedy. And the rest of the company asked to execute this tragic tale of love and betrayal is equally impressive.
Audaciously set on a variety of visually-engaging, bare-bones locales ostensibly picked without concern for cinematic pretense, U-Carmen effectively conveys a sense of everyday life in the region’s Khayelistha Township while simultaneously serving up an endearing variation of a magical opera for the ages. Bravo!