Carmen La Cubana

Carmen La Cubana

★★★★★

I was not sure what to expect when I first heard about Carmen La Cubana. What was it? An opera? A musical? Musical theatre? A Latin dance extravaganza? As it turns out, it is all four rolled into one: the story and the songs of the opera, updated with mambo, rumba, samba and chachacha rhythms , resulting in a colourful, exuberant, sexy and exhilarating show, that, despite its tragic end, leaves you craving more. More music, more dance, more everything.

George Bizet’s opera, which is based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée, premiered in 1875 and has since been reinvented many times, on stage and on screen; notably in the 1943 movie Carmen Jones with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, which moved the setting from Seville in Spain to North Carolina, USA. Carmen La Cubana is based on this film, but moving the action once again, to Cuba in 1958, against the backdrop of the revolution.

This Sadler’s Wells production’s arrangements and orchestration are by Hamilton’s Alex Lacamoire. Book is by Norge Espinosa Mendoza, who also wrote the lyrics, Stephen Clark and Christopher Renshaw, who directed it as well.

The whole of the all-Cuban cast is excellent: the singers, the dancers and the musicians, but I really love Luna Manzanares Nardo, whose sultry, smoky, sexy voice and dancing is perfect for the role of the eponymous Carmen, the beautiful cigar factory worker who is about to change several lives forever. Here’s a woman who knows how to get what she wants, and you can see why it is difficult to resist her. Her version of ‘Amor’ (Habanera) as well as ‘El Mambo de Carmen’ are still going around in my head this morning and, every now and then, I burst into song.

Saeed Mohamed Valdés is the handsome, and initially straight-laced, soldier José who quickly and incurably falls under her spell. He leaves his sweetheart Marilú for Carmen and even goes to prison because of her. He is well and truly bewitched. His anguish and jealousy, as Carmen leaves him, are palpable. I love his voice.

Marilú is beautifully played and sung by Cristina Rodríguez Pino, who embodies sweetness and innocence to contrast with the raw sexuality and independence of Carmen. Her solo of ‘Mi José’ is haunting.

Carmen’s other paramour, a torero in the original opera, is reinvented as a boxer, as it was in the movie Carmen Jones. El Niño is also beguiled by Carmen’s charms and eventually succeeds in winning her over. Whether this time her love is for real or only a means to an end is left open. He, of course, sings the other song everybody knows from Carmen (even people who are not into opera), the ‘Toreador’ song, here called ‘Sal a pelear’, a big showstopper of a number with extra Latin spice.

Another big part of the story is Sergeant Moreno (Leonid Simeón Baró), who is the catalyst of some of the fateful developments of the story.

Comic relief comes from Jorge Enrique Caballero (Rico), Maikel Lirio (Tato), Laritza Pulida García and Rachel Pastor Pérez (Paquita).

Tying all the different strands together and serving as a narrator is La Señora, who has many different roles in the show: a priestess, José’s mother, a clairvoyant, a nightclub singer, and more and all these roles are played with gusto by Grammy and Emmy award winning Albita Rodríguez.

And let’s not forget the wonderful ensemble of dancers who switch seamlessly from cigar factory workers to night club dancers to performing acrobatics in the boxing ring. Choreography is by Roclan González Chávez. Or the live orchestra under Musical Director Hector Martignon – there is so much talent on the stage!

I loved the stage design (Tom Piper), which worked so well to evoke, with just a few tweaks, the colourful, decaying, yet grand architecture of Cuba, as well as a glitzy nightclub and seedy back alleys in Havana. An important part played the lighting (Fabrice Kebour), which was also spot on, both literally, as well as giving the illusion of tree filled courtyards and gloomy basements.

The surtitles which are provided to understand the Spanish dialogue were a bit hit and miss (you sometimes had the feeling you were missing out on a few of the nuances in the dialogue) and beset by a few technical problems when I visited, but I would suggest familiarising yourself with the story beforehand and to just enjoy the show. Or learn Spanish before you go.

This production is wonderful. A great marriage of opera and musical, providing the opportunity of musical lovers to discover opera and vice versa. Do go and see it if you can.

1 – 18 August 2018

Sadler’s Wells

Rosebery Avenue, London, EC1R

For shows and tickets click here.

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