From Bollywood to Bankrobbing: Carmen's multiple adaptations
Carmen has been adapted over and over again. What it is that keeps bringing people back?
4 December 2013 at 5.54pm | 2 Comments
Carmen recently turned up in Bradford. The occasion was a live performance of a Bollywood version of Bizet’s opera. This Carmen was a waitress who aspired to Bollywood stardom; José became Don the security guard while Escamillo was reinvented as AD the Bollywood star. Yet as usual, the story ended in tears, as Don stabbed Carmen while Bizet’s menacing chords ousted the livelier Asian dance music we heard only minutes before.
The broadcast of this performance on BBC Three suggests the repackaging of the Carmen story for both new cultures and new generations. It is not the first time this has happened. Just over ten years ago the singer Beyoncé starred in a version that combined Bizet’s music with hip hop.
Bizet’s tunes are apparently more adaptable than most to new musical styles, but the original Mérimée tale, which stresses the passion, aspirations and despair of young lovers, has something to do with it too. Many operas, of course, feature love affairs that go wrong and cause tragedy, but few have proved as adaptable to other cultures and musical rhythms.
Spain has attempted to wrest the story back from French cliché to styles considered more authentically Spanish. The flamenco version created by Spanish choreographer Antonio Gades (which he later adapted for a film with director Carlos Saura) attempted to recast the story in a more overtly Spanish mould. The musical Carmen Jones transferred the tale to the Black American South; while more recently the film Karmen Geï set it in a women’s prison in Senegal, and U-Carmen eKhayelitsha presented the action in a South African township. Updating and moving the action was a trend that started early: a film from 1919, Een Carmen van het Noorden (A Carmen of the North), set the story during World War I – a further film with the same title, released in 2009, set the film in the contemporary Netherlands.
The attraction of Carmen over other opera plots might be that the passions and emotions involved move fluidly across the boundaries of class, race and gender. Carmen is the party animal for all ages. Quite what sort of party girl she is varies with the times and the adaptations. When Rita Hayworth played Carmen in a film version of 1948 her liveliness was confined to throwing oranges at the hapless José and moving gingerly about the mountains in a precarious pair of high heels. Only a decade later, the Spanish actress Sara Montiel offered Spanish audiences a frisson of pleasure when she stripped naked in her prison cell before a horrified Don José in the film Carmen, la de Ronda (Carmen, the Girl from Ronda). Or there is Jean-Luc Godard’s Carmen X, a bank robber who pauses mid-heist to engage in feverish lovemaking with the bank’s security guard Joseph.
Perhaps what becomes the essential binding agent in this swirl of emotions is the music of Bizet, the extra ingredient that returns audiences time and again to this particular story rather than any of the other doomed love affairs we can find in the opera canon. Contemporary versions, such as the Bollywood performance with which we began, still cannot resist grafting Bizet’s music here and there on to the core soundtrack. It seems that Bizet’s tunes are as seductive and compelling as the heroine they give voice to, and, just like Carmen, they come back to us again and again.
The full article ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ by Ann Davies can be found in the programme book that accompanies Carmen. It is available in the theatre at performance times and from the ROH Shop.
Carmen runs from 16 December 2013 to 9 January 2014. Advance tickets are sold out, but day tickets will become available. The production is staged with the generous philanthropic support of Dr and Mrs Michael West, Yvonne and Bjarne Rieber and the Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.