U Carmen e-KhayalitshaFilmed opera is a very different artefact from opera on film. The latter is a cinematic version of a stage production. Filmed opera, on the other hand, is an opera removed from the auditorium with the action taking place in a realistic setting.
When an opera, or any performed work of art, is taken away from its original context, there are really only two questions to be answered: is it any good and does the new frame of reference add anything?
I think we can answer the first of these easily- yes it is, although not without reservations.
U Carmen mangles Bizet’s original score, but, sensibly, keeps most of the best tunes in. The Toreador Song, for example, is almost completely omitted, but understandably so since there is little justification for a matador in South Africa. Everything else works: the cigarette factory stays; the smugglers become drug dealers; the dusty streets of Spain become the dusty streets of a South African township (Khayelitsha).
Of course, any Carmen rises or falls on the portrayal of its eponymous heroine. Pauline Malefane plays the temptress much as you would expect, but she conforms to a different standard of female beauty. Indeed, very different from the svelte sopranos we currently favour in European houses. We see little complexity in characterisation, but she carries all the personality traits that make Carmen what she is, and lead inevitably to her own downfall. She is capricious, wilful and defiant, but also honest, passionate and absolutely consistent. These traits are inherent in the music.
The Don Jose character (Jongikhaya, sung by Andile Tshoni) is as hapless as the original – a country boy out of place in the big city. He seems to leap from indifference to obsession in a remarkably short space of time, perhaps that is how infatuation works.
Perhaps the most beautiful singing comes from Longelwa Blou playing Jongi’s old friend from his village (Michaela in the original). Her loyalty and affection are evinced in the clarity of her thrilling soprano, but like other characters she is at a loss to comprehend Jongi’s self-destructive obsession.
The libretto is translated from French into Xhosa. Unremarkable in itself, but Xhosa is one of the African ‘click’ languages and the consonants where this occurs are just discernible in the soundtrack. Some might find this irritating, I found it fascinating.
As the opera enters its final stages, the bullring of Seville translates into an indoor sports arena where Carmen and other members of the township choir turn up to offer vocal support. They are all dressed in stunning crimson – a colour motif for Carmen since the first reel.
Jongi is impelled towards his inevitable fate, driven by forces he has never understood and another Carmen bites the dust.
What we gain from a South African setting of Bizet’s masterpiece is the invariable workings of human nature and the insistent demands of great music.