Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, music by Bizet
Carmen Jones – Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi
Joe – Andrew Clarke
Cindy Lou – Sherry Boone
Husky Miller – Rodney Clarke
Frankie – Andee Louise Hypolite
Rum – Phillip Browne
Myrt – Akiya Henry
Dink – John Moabi
Pearl – Brenda Edwards
Morel – Rolan Bell
Sergeant Brown – Joe Speare
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Jude Kelly – Director
Michael Vale – Designer
Rafael Bonachela – Choreographer
Malcolm Rippeth – Lighting Designer
Paul Astbury – Sound Designer
Adrian Gwillym – Costume Supervisor
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: 7 August, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Messing about with “Carmen” has, over the years, become a major industry. Every generation of opera directors thinks it can re-interpret Bizet’s masterpiece, or put a new, modern gloss on a work that has always been perfectly fine since it was written and first produced in 1875. It may have had a mixed reception at first but it soon built into a resounding success. Sadly, Bizet did not live long enough to either know about or enjoy the opera’s popularity: he died, aged 33, three months after the premiere.
We have all had to endure productions of “Carmen” that try something new but, even if the productions often fail, then there is always Bizet’s brilliant score to save the day. We’ve had “Carmen” in the round at the Royal Albert Hall, there have been films of the opera, including one set in South Africa, and there are dance-works made from the piece, including Rodion Shchedrin’s adaptation of Bizet’s music for a ballet starring his wife, the Russian prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. This last score is also used in Matthew Bourne’s dance adaptation, in which the fiery, man-eating heroine becomes a bisexual motor mechanic in “The Car Man”!
Putting all that aside, the only truly perfect modern adaptation is Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Carmen Jones”, which is really Bizet’s score virtually untouched in a setting that removes the plot from Seville to the southern states of America. Carmen is still the ball-breaking man-hater. Her job is not working in a cigarette factory but a parachute factory during World War II and the man she chooses to torment is not Don José the soldier but plain Joe, the would-be flying officer in the US Air Force. And the man she teases Joe with is boxer Husky Miller (formerly known as toreador Escamillo).
For the Southbank Centre’s production director Jude Kelly and designer Michael Vale have chosen to refine the setting to Latin America, in order to emphasise the Spanish influence of the music and dance. This is a good move as it brings an extra layer of excitement to the work and allows choreographer Rafael Bonachela to produce some exciting set-pieces.
In 1943 when “Carmen Jones” first opened and ran for some 500 performances Hammerstein called it “a musical play”. This means that, like the opera, it must work as both drama and musical. Quite why a production never reached London before 1991 is still a mystery. Until then we only knew Hammerstein’s piece from the Otto Preminger film of 1954, with Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte (singers both, but neither of whom were allowed to sing on the soundtrack). Simon Callow’s 1991 production at The Old Vic is now part of theatrical history – it ran for over two years. And now it’s back in Waterloo for some 30-odd performances with full orchestra – actually two full orchestras with both the London Philharmonic and Philharmonia, resident bands at the SBC, sharing the honours – a cast of nearly fifty and a more or less complete staging.
The Royal Festival Hall re-opened in July this year with Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” but the actual staging element was minimal and hardly worth the bother. Here, though, Kelly is forced to use the whole of the RFH platform, with no false proscenium arch to mask the sides of the hall. It is a big space to fill and although it does not always work, it is a brave try. The hall is not a theatre, after all, so you have to contrive to make it seem theatrical. Producer Raymond Gubbay has conquered the Royal Albert Hall in this respect but the shape of that building has its own focus. The Festival Hall just presents a wide expanse that has to be filled with people doing something here, others doing something else over there, with the orchestra in the middle and the actors performing in front of and behind the pit. Until you get used to the idea it’s often difficult to pinpoint who is speaking or singing and from where they are coming. As the evening moves on and the emphasis is more on single characters rather than ensembles, and as the piece darkens (both literally and visually) the staging improves.
The night I saw “Carmen Jones” it was the London Philharmonic in the pit and, under John Rigby’s spirited direction, the musicians played their hearts out. In keeping with the Latin American setting the band is not dressed in the regulation evening dress but in casual clothes and even the conductor is attired in an open-necked shirt.
So, good performances from the musicians, and certainly the dance ensemble and the chorus do wonders with Bizet’s score. I don’t think I’ve heard a better chorus in any other production of “Carmen”. Then there are even greater performances from the principles. The young South African singer Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi is a superb Carmen, producing a real spine-tingling vocal and dramatic performance. I can’t help thinking of Diana Ross because she looks like her and acts up a storm, too. Andrew Clarke’s Joe is a good foil with a powerful voice and the requisite charisma, while Sherry Boone’s Cindy Lou is a sheer knockout. You will be in tears after her brilliant account of ‘My Joe’ in Act Two. Rodney’s Clarke’s boxer Husky Miller is also mighty fine. But the ensemble brings such great joy to the piece as a whole and, if you can get over the fact that you are in the Royal Festival Hall, you should have a great time.
- Carmen Jones is at the Royal Festival Hall until Sunday 2 September: Evenings from Tuesday-Saturday at 7.30 with matinees on Wednesday, Saturday & Sunday at 2.30 p.m.
- Southbank Centre