Wednesday, October 03, 2007


U-Carmen (e-Khayelitsha)
Produced and Directed by Mark Dornford-Smith
Koch Lorber Films

In addition to its enduring popularity, Georges Bizet’s Carmen has also proved remarkably pliable. For instance, Oscar Hammerstein revamped Bizet’s lyrics for Otto Preminger’s classic film Carmen Jones. Several jazz artists have also interpreted the score, including an underappreciated classic by Barney Kessel. U-Carmen (trailer here), the latest recasting of Bizet’s opera, which shifts the setting to a South African Township and translates the lyrics to Xhosa, is now available on DVD.

U-Carmen was originally developed as a stage production by British-born director Mark Dornford-May for the South African troupe Dimpho Di Kopane (DDK). While the idea of Carmen in Xhosa translation may sound jarring, opera traditionalists will actually be very comfortable with what they hear. There are Xhosa elements in the soundtrack, but by-and-large the orchestrations are traditionally classical. One might expect the linguistic clicks of Xhosa to be distracting, but again Carmen proves to be remarkably elastic.

Pauline Malefane plays Carmen and Andile Tshoni plays her ill-fated policeman lover, Jongi. Both have very impressive voices. One of the biggest tests for U-Carmen is the “Habanera,” and Malefane handles it beautifully. The third (matador) side of the love triangle is largely under-developed, here represented by an expatriate opera singer (often pictured performing in the matador role). Fans of the opera might be disappointed that the “Toreador Song” is not employed as an aria feature for him, instead appearing briefly as a vehicle for the cigarette factory women’s choir in the beginning and late in the film (and as an orchestral background theme).

Perhaps the most joyous music of U-Carmen is the Xhosa chanting celebrating the exiled singer’s homecoming (also heard over the menu titles). It actually makes one wish they had taken more liberties with the music. However, the work that went into the soundtrack was impressive. According to the bonus featurette, the orchestra was 98% South African. Music director Charles Hazelwood explains: “it was a motley bunch of people who had never played together as a unit before, but the upshot of that is it gives the recording of the music for the film a kind of urgency, a kind of danger, because the orchestra was playing, genuinely, like their lives depended on it.”

Even as a lopsided love triangle, most of the elements of Bizet’s opera are recognizably present: the cigarette factory, the barracks, the sick mother, the fortune teller, and the smugglers. While the energy may flag at times, Dornford-May has an impressive eye. It is an interesting attempt to make the old, new again.