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'U-Carmen'

In 2004, Mark Dornford-May, a British theater director, decided to travel to South Africa, rustle up some local talent, and film a version of Carmen—Georges Bizet's landmark 1875 opera about a Spanish gypsy and the jealous soldier who literally loves her to death—in a shantytown, sung entirely in Xhosa. This was basically the best idea ever. The setting brims over with the same wicked froth of danger, exoticism, and passion that 19th-century Seville must have had before it got stylized into oblivion. There are some extraordinary scenes of village life: Goats bleat their way through the marketplace, sex-hungry soldiers rate the butts of passing females, and everyone wears red Converse knockoffs. The Xhosa folk songs incorporated into the opera have so much verve and resonance that they sometimes outshine even Bizet's music. Although it is jarring to meet a woman named Carmen (Pauline Malefane) in a town called Khayelitsha, most of the updates seem like perfectly natural extensions of the original: Instead of consulting a fortune-teller, for instance, Carmen goes to the sangoma, a local healer. Like many operas, U-Carmen sags a little in its melodrama-heavy middle, but the performers do their best to sing and dance us through to the spectacular, bloody ending. Malefane in particular is sensational— she's got a big body and a bigger voice and she gives Carmen's last fiery words— "I was born free, and I want to die free!"—the political and personal poignancy that they would have had when sung by a gypsy girl in Bizet's day.


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