Carmen, thriving when set in countries on edge, is
Always “subversive,” always “defiant,” but also
Really just an antiquated trope of humanity.
Men solving problems with fists and pistols, but
Everything’s fine ‘cause they dance phenomenally.
New adaptation, same old story:
Lascivious, lustful Carmen seduces
A naive yet violent Don Jose, who kills her in the end.
Classically misogynist, but perhaps
Brings operatic melodrama back to center stage,
A classic, as in –
Not able to function in the present day.
A difficult night at the theatre.
“Bizet and Hammerstein get a Cuban makeover,” reads The Guardian’s review of Carmen la Cubana, the latest iteration of the classic story about the subversive and defiant woman of the same name. Carmen’s story, begun as a novella by Prosper Merimee, transformed into the 1895 opera by Georges Bizet, a staged theatrical production by Oscar Hammerstein II in 1943, and finally a film in 1954. The setting of each of these adaptations has changed over time, but the central narrative remains the same: a sensual, much-desired woman playing an integral part in the downfall of a seemingly innocent and lovelorn soldier, Don Jose.
With orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire (Hamilton, In The Heights), and a cast and onstage band made up entirely of artists of color, my bar was set tremendously high. What ended up gracing the stage was a piecemeal representation of the lascivious woman trope, riddled with transphobic and misogynist representations of humanity – at least by today’s standards. The story ran along so many tangential storylines and male-dominated incidents of violence that by the time Don Jose killed Carmen, I was neither surprised nor particularly moved.
What was the purpose then? Enter: Devil’s Advocate. The production is not particularly forthcoming on any subject and is, if anything, wildly problematic in its depictions of gender hierarchies and relationships. In a world of theater evolving to hold the mirror up to the current status of the world, this play seems too easy to detach from, as it seems, perhaps… unrealistic? But, the benefit of this is being able to see the piece as an operatic work of melodrama, as it was initially intended to be in former stage adaptations. Perhaps the sparse and simplistic translations were meant to center the audience’s attention on the beautiful moments of movement onstage. By not keeping your eyes glued to the monitors, you could see the magnificent displays of dancing and light. To its credit, Carmen was the first show we’ve seen this summer with only performers of color, and its commitment to using only Spanish is an empowering and applause-worthy element. To be so well-received in a country that primarily speaks English says wonders for the production, even if our critical Dartmouth eyes were left desiring so much more. As a revival of an old classic, it is an accurate portrayal of the story. As a performance in the twenty-first century? This one’s a bit of a [mambo] and miss.