Reimagined in 1950s Cuba and directed by Christopher Renshaw, Carmen la Cubana will open at the Théâtre du Châtelet over 140 years after Paris debut
It is Carmen, but not as we know it, and almost certainly not as French composer Georges Bizet intended.
A new version is mixing opera and the Broadway adaptation with some Latin American cha-cha-cha thrown in for good measure.
Carmen la Cubana, which has its world premier at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet on Wednesday, sees the femme fatale in 1950s Cuba at the time Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are fomenting revolution and the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista.
Christopher Renshaw, nominated for a Tony award for his production of The King and I on Broadway, which also played in London with Elaine Paige in the lead role, auditioned 200 artists in Havana for the production – 50 of whom have been rehearsing in Paris for the last two months.
It has an all Cuban cast, songs in Spanish – with French surtitles – and a script that sees Carmen working in a cigar factory in a small town near Santiago, where the revolutionaries were based.
Carmen and her friends dream of leaving their squalid existence for the bright lights of Havana, but true to the original, Carmen’s hot temper leads her into trouble.
Renshaw said he had long dreamed of setting the Bizet opera in a Latin American style. He described Carmen la Cubana, with its mix of opera, salsa, mambo and cha-cha-cha, as “a first”.
“I have always wanted to set the story of Carmen in a Latin American atmosphere, or more precisely Cuba, because I’m totally entranced with the culture of the island … I felt it was time to take a real look at Cuba, away from the tourist postcard image, via the story of this fascinating woman called Carmen,” Renshaw said.
“I suppose the big freedom is that the composer is not alive, and to be working with the musical styles of Cuba, re-seeing it – and hearing it – through Cuban eyes,” he said.
“Working with this style that I know so well … setting it in 1958 … we’ve created a new story,” he said.
Choreographer Roclan Gonzalez Chavez told Paris Match: “Carmen ends tragically and in Cuba stories usually have happy endings. We always want to be happy to do the best we can with the little we have. So, our experience of life will also be on the stage.”
Carmen was composed by Bizet as a four-act opera based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée published in 1845. It was first performed at Paris’ Opéra Comique in March 1875 and shocked and scandalised the audience. Bizet died suddenly of a heart attack after the 33rd performance, aged just 36, never living to see it become a success in Vienna.
The opera was a favourite with the then German chancellor Otto von Bismarck who reportedly saw it 27 times. The great diva Maria Callas recorded the role, that demands a challenging combination of singing, dancing and acting skills, but never performed it on stage.
It has since become one of the most frequently performed classical operas and the Habanera and the Toreador Song are among the best known arias. Oscar Hammerstein turned it into a Broadwway musical called Carmen Jones in 1943, and it was adapted for film a decade later by director Otto Preminger.