There is a Carmen for everyone. This production of Georges Bizet’s opera is from South African townships around Capetown welded by the most spirited Isango Ensemble. They have made the work their own from the marimba orchestra in which all the performers participate to the African dance steps and occasionally native-language songs thrown in the mix.
Before the show, the performers gather on the stage, all shapes and sizes, real people looking like a gathering in any city’s disenfranchised neighborhood. How comfortable the performers are on stage, how natural their interactions in the preshow. Some stare out at us, as curious about us as we are about them. Then a whistle sounds and the entire ensemble moves into place, each one installed behind a marimba on either side of the stage. With the first downbeat, Mandisi Dyantyis conducts Bizet’s overture with its themes, including “Toreador,” all on marimbas. The performers move as they play, as if dancing through the tunes. This is a community sharing their joy and creative expression, as lively and authentic as a Balinese village’s gamelan orchestra where everyone takes part. The orchestrations are delicious, allowing us to revel in a rediscovery of Bizet.
The synopsis has prepared us for what is in store. “U-Carmen is set in a land which somehow borders France, Spain, and South Africa.” Indeed, when the show begins, rather than the oranges of Seville and a prettified town square, we first see a stockade lining the back of the stage, the kind South Africa once kept their Black men in for months to work the mines. But the world has been updated. These men are doing some kind of military service policing the town, but still they are hungry for women, insolent, and openly soliciting female members of the audience.
First comes Micaëla, looking for her hometown sweetheart José. She is dressed in a simple cotton dress and barefoot, looking extremely vulnerable surrounded by this pack of misogynistic men who try to entice her into their barracks. She wisely makes a getaway just before José enters. Then, instead of the factory bell, we hear loud whistles, and the cigarette factory girls enter, also barefoot, in jeans and simple tops. This is a tougher crew than Micaëla, and the women give the men as good as they get. It’s a rough and tumble society, poor and desperate.
When Pauline Malefane enters as Carmen, she too wears jeans and a simple red leotard top. Malefane is the co-founder of the Isango Ensemble and clearly both star and mentor of the group. She has performed Carmen for many years on some great world stages, and returns to the work now, making the singing look easy, especially as she swoops down into the darkest part of her range. Boldly she vocally demonstrates she is recreating the role by her own rules. This singer-actress is a mature woman, and her body is generously proportioned. When she whips her hips from side to side, taunting and teasing the men with her voluptuous moves, she dances with such abandon that you feel this Carmen is authentically a free spirit.
3 hours with 1 intermission
October 30 – Nov 8, 2015
New Victory Theater,
New York, NY
November 10 – 22, 2015
Cutler Majestic Theatre
Details and Tickets
Malefane also brings a deep understanding of the role dramatically, making clear the choices she’s made to carry us through this tragic story. What I got from her interpretation is Malefane’s real love for José. It’s almost as if she regrets endangering him and enticing him over to the wilder side and so she cuts him loose.
If I have singled out her performance it’s partly because others keep themselves anonymous as an ensemble. There are no names in the program identifying the roles they play. It’s a sign of another way the company distinguishes itself, showing a generosity of spirit and sense of service to the telling of the story. For instance, you watch the young soprano playing Micaëla sing her several demanding arias and in between scamper offstage to take her place at her marimba where she displays just as much joy and feeling playing in the orchestra.
The fellow who plays José has a sizeable voice that perhaps most distinguishes itself as a “classic” tenor, with that throbbing sound on the high notes opening up to full emotional effect. The final picture of Carmen, usually featuring the two lovers alone in a last fatal embrace, is instead peopled by the entire ensemble rushing in and crowding around Carmen and José. This Carmen is about how love and death are born out publicly by a whole community.
The Isango company “schools us” about two different cultural approaches to music. When the performers sing the Bizet, mostly they stand still, their arms hang almost lifeless at their sides. They perform the western music well and with a kind of deep respect. But when they break out in dance, all beautifully choreographed by Lungelo Ngamlana, with the pulsing footwork connected to the earth, the kicking up and barrel rolls, and the freely swinging arms, it’s lively and fun and with full-bodied expression. African songs from their own borough are also incorporated – though to my mind not nearly enough. Nothing is held back or delivered tentatively or perfunctorily. This is when the group comes most alive and richly delivers its theatrical roots steeped in community.
To get some understanding of the breadth and social commitment of the Isango Ensemble is to understand that theatre is only part of their work. The members of this company perform the opera La Bohème as part of the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The company is also partnered and supported by Desmond Tutu. The kind of political and social commitment stokes their creative work with a special fire and clear throughline.
Mark Dornford-May, who co-founded the company is also Adaptor and Director of this work. He is doing a brilliant job in finding the “spine” of these great theatrical and operatic works, making them come fully alive, speaking to the African township experience. His translation-adaptation is easy to access and muscular. Some of it has a direct message as Bizet’s quintet when the singers convincingly sing, “You need the women on your side.” It’s very exciting to see him bring these wonderful artists onto powerful mission-driven theatre company.
Such a pity this company had only a handful of nights at Baltimore’s Center Stage. Last year they won hearts and minds with their groundbreaking Magic Flute production. Theirs is a company that needs to be supported in a return engagement to the Washington-Baltimore area.
U-Carmen was performed at Center Stage, October 16 and 17, 2015.
U-Carmen Composed by Georges Bizet . Adapted and Directed by Mark Dornford-May . Music arranged and conducted by Mandisi Dyantyis . Featuring Noluthando Boqwana, Mandisi Dyantis, Thobile Dyasi, Ayanda Elecki, Zamile Gantana. Nontusa Louw, Sifiso Lupuzi, Pauline Malefane, Bongiwe Mapassa, Sandile Mgugunyeka, Katlego Mmusi, Mhlekazi (WhaWha) Mosiea, Zoleka Mpotsha, Siyana Ncobo, Busisiwe Ngejane, Zolina Ngejane, Sonwabo Ntshata, John Page, Tukela Pepeteka, Luvo Rasemeni, Maris Sharp, Masakane Sotayisi, Ayanda Tikolo . Produced by Isango Ensemble . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.