by Tracey Paleo, Gia On The Move

Carmen1_426x426When a culture presents its best, we needs must say yes, please, thank you. Then ask for more.

Isango Ensemble’s uCarmen in association with South African Tourism appearing at the Broad Stage this month brought us a broadened and integrated experience of a standard European classic mixed with pulsating African rhythms for a wildly impassioned and yet somewhat enigmatic conceptualization.

Georges Bizet’s French Opéra-Comique which was first performed at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, on March 3, 1875, has tended to inspire a love/hate sentiment with audiences.  Perhaps it is because in actuality Carmen, in its original production, was not a particular success at first. Its initial run of 36 performances garnered relatively uninspiring reviews from critics and apathy from the general public, even though it broke new ground for its controversy and operatic style. On top of which, even before the conclusion of the run, Bizet died suddenly, never to know the opera’s eventual later celebrity. 

uCarmenThe story, unlike the musical composition which is widely acclaimed for its brilliance in melody and orchestration, is typically overwrought with themes of betrayal and Carmen herself, so “saucy” and self-interested, is not particularly lovable or empathetic.  In fact, the score and dialog, past the death of Bizet was subject to considerable revisions including a multitude of stage adaptations since as early as 1908.

Here is the cross-road where Isango Ensemble’s version matches and departs.

Jealousy, rage and revenge are a pastime for the characters and the controversy of an independent women rebelling in a male dominated society keeps it bold position. There is a definitive grit and “street” that menaces so much more than many traditional versions. Choreographically it is imbued with purely African tones assisted by xylophones and cantations seamlessly inserted into Bizet’s score, that add a considerable measure of absolute frivolity, “real-ness” and modernity.

The arias Habanera” from act 1 and the “Toreador Song” from act 2 are gorgeously sung although not easily heard past the first rows from leading lady, Pauline Malefane.  Overall, there is an unmistakable strong-willed, feminine power solely embodied by this Carmen, obsession and violence intact.

uCarmen is vibrant, full of life bursting at the seams, and more than anything incredibly relatable especially for today’s younger audiences.

Click below for the

uCarmen Program Notes

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