Los Angeles / Tour Opera Review: UCARMEN (Isango Emsemble at The Broad Stages in Santa Monica)

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by Paul Birchall on October 4, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

BETTER ON THE MARIMBA

Such is the life of a theater critic.  On Friday, you might find yourself in a dusty living room in a seedier area of mid-town, seeing a salon-scale show in some half-crazed, semi-pro playwright’s dusty apartment.  And then on Saturday, you might be at the Broad Theater in Santa Monica, surrounded by swells in tuxes and tails, swilling South African wine and chowing down on cheeses churned in the veldt by wise Afrikaner cheesemakers.  You never know what to expect and you never know what is going to happen – and that, in a nutshell, is what keeps us going, I think.

uCarmen, the Isango Ensemble production’s adaptation of the opera by Bizet currently playing at the Broad, is a delight.  It’s not just good opera, it is also so well-suited to what seems to be the South African personality, you almost start to think that Bizet wrote it for the slums outside of Johannesburg, and not the mountains around Seville.   Isango came to town fairly recently with their acclaimed South African culture-adapted version of The Magic Flute.  Now the company returns with an opera that crackles with danger and energy.

Elliott Franks

The score and arias are all Bizet, but they have been adapted for South African instruments, with an orchestra of approximately seven marimbas, which convey the African mood while still maintaining the source opera’s integrity.  In director Mark Dornfield’s astutely simple production, members of the cast alternate performing and playing the instruments, conducted by music director Mandisi Dyantyis.

When Dyantis appears at the opening, and the ensemble on the marimbas start to play the familiar overture from Carmen, the moment is eerie – here is this recognizable music, covered in a way we’ve never seen before.  The sound is fruity and tropical – but, yet, it’s entirely faithful to the source:  Bizet would have no problem with it.

john haynesCarmen tells the story of a free-spirited gypsy gal who seduces a handsome soldier, talks him into ruining his career, and then is murdered by him after she throws him over for a charismatic matador.   The setting here is Spain, but for all intents and purposes it’s meant to be South Africa.

Pauline Malefane makes a gorgeous, ferociously attitude-throwing Carmen.  She’s not what one might physically imagine in the part – she seems a bit older than most iterations of the character – however, what her rendition lacks in youth, she more than makes up for in fiery tempered impetuousness.  Her voice is marvelous, too, and her rendition eloquently captures the nuances of this complex, dangerous character.  This is a steadfastly African Carmen:  When a character she loathes flirts with her, Malefane casts him a bit of side-eye that would freeze a puddle.

Mhlekazi “Wha Wha” Mosiea, playing Carmen’s ill fated soldier lover, Don José, reminds one of a soldier in a petty African tyrant’s army more than a proud Spanish warrior – which is a shift that feels absolutely correct for the different setting and context.  After Carmen “breaks” him, his shift into flashy leather jacket-wearing smuggler thug also feels nicely authentic to the African setting.

Busisiwe Ngejane’s girlish Micaela, the “good girl” who hopes to wed Don José before he’s lured to his doom by Carmen, has an aria that is peppered with a chorus singing South African hymn-like vocalizations.  Other than that, though, the music is generally Bizet’s score, albeit with the maribas providing an other-cultural ambiance that’s compelling.  Although this can’t be said to be a Carmen that reinvents the wheel in terms of originality, it’s a wonderful, evocative African adaptation of the grand old opera.

photos by Elliott Franks and John Haynes

uCarmen
Isango Ensemble
in association with South African Tourism
The Eli & Edyth Broad Stage
1310 11th St in Santa Monica
ends on October 10, 2015
for tickets, call 310.434.3200 or visit TheBroadStage.com

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