Carmen La Cubana, Sadler’s Wells, London — slick, colourful and energetic – Financial Times

Luna Manzanares Nardo, second from left, as Carmen © Nilz Boehme

Bizet’s Carmen is remarkably robust, able to withstand almost any amount of directorial whimsy. Whether its heroine is sewing military parachutes (as in Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1943 Carmen Jones) or selling her body (Sally Potter’s unloved 2007 production for ENO), the unforgettable melodies and the dark, dirty passions at the heart of the story guarantee an emotional and entertaining ride.

Christopher Renshaw’s Carmen La Cubana, which premiered in Paris in 2016 and opened at Sadler’s Wells last Thursday, relocates the action to revolutionary Cuba. Carmen remains a cigar factory worker but Don José is now a soldier fighting the rebels and, as in Carmen Jones, the bullfighter Escamillo becomes a celebrated local prizefighter, El Niño, who lures them all to Havana, where “perfume springs from the fountains and the bathrooms will all be clean”.

The production is slick, colourful and extremely energetic. The all-Cuban cast is nattily dressed with frilly 1950s skirts for the chorines and white suits and kipper ties for the boxer and his entourage. The shabby grandeur of Havana is deftly conjured by Tom Piper’s all-purpose set with its crumbling Corinthian columns, peeling paint and a rusting cast iron stairway which lends drama and variety to the big entrances and also provides a home for the band. The versatile 14-piece orchestra is intermittently on display (as in the Act Two nightclub numbers) but generally blushes unseen behind barn doors crudely painted with a Cuban flag.

The book is a joint effort by Renshaw and co-librettists Stephen Clark and Cuban poet Norge Espinosa Mendoza, whose lyrics offer a crash course in the misery-Spanish familiar to lovers of tango and flamenco: fata, amor, dolor and, eventually, muerte.

The opera’s melodies remain intact but have been re-orchestrated by Tony Award-winning Alex Lacamoire (of Hamilton fame) and re-synced to Cuban rhythms. This is enormous fun at first and is jet fuel for the eight tireless dancers who spice up the cabaret-style chorus lines with a great deal of snake-hipped salsa and much daemonic leaping. Many of Bizet’s greatest hits survive their Latin translation undiminished — the Act One seguidilla works particularly well — but others are de-natured by odd shifts of tempo. El Niño’s big number, a reworking of “Votre toast” (aka “The Toreador Song”), was given a lounge singer treatment that robbed it of its peppery vigour.

Joaquín Garcia Mejías as El Niño © Nilz Boehme

Most of the characters are too skimpily sketched for the drama to resonate. José comes across as a feckless, vindictive skirt-chaser rather than an honourable man brought low by passion, and El Niño lacks the charisma and dynamism to explain Carmen’s attraction to him.

Ultimately the dramatic force of this long show is supplied by its female stars. Albita Rodríguez brings a big voice and powerful personality to the role of the shape-shifting Señora, part narrator, part puppet master, but the night belonged to Luna Manzanares Nardo’s Carmen. Salty and sinuous, she joins the dance with genuine attack and makes the most of her pneumatic, Jessica Rabbit wardrobe of scarlet gowns and fishtail skirts. Her full-bodied, well-modulated mezzo soprano makes thrilling work of the “Card” aria, soaring from breathy introspection to a theatre-filling blast of sound, a vocal expression of Carmen’s fatal allure.


To August 18,