Sadler’s Wells currently has on an appropriately steamy offering for this long hot summer we’re having. Carmen la Cubana – you guessed it – has transposed Bizet’s opera to Cuba in the run-up to the revolution. This is, though, a musical rather than an opera (it owes a lot to the Oscar Hammerstein II black American version Carmen Jones) and, while there are plenty of Bizet’s original tunes, they now have a different flavour – salsa maybe or mambo. The rhythms keep changing and it’s reflected in some great dancing that embraces Cuba’s many influences from African to Latin and throws in a few showgirls from the Tropicana.
As Carmen, Luna Manzanares Nardo, sizzles in red and slinks across the stage spinning every man’s head. And she sounds good, too, with a smoky voice, just right for a cigar maker. Poor Jose (Saeed Mohamed Valdes with a wonderfully rich tone) doesn’t stand a chance. As the soldier tasked with taking her to prison, she easily persuades him to let her escape with promises of love. They head to Havana for a new life together just as the political tide is starting to turn and war as well as love is in the air.
Carmen’s own head is turned, though, when El Nino arrives on the scene (the original bullfighter becomes a boxer played by a superbly swaggering Joaquin Garcia Mejias). As if that wasn’t enough for poor Jose he learns his mother is dying. His one-time sweetheart, Marilu (thrillingly sung by Cristina Rodriguez Pino) turns up with the news and tells him too that she still loves him. Jose only wants Carmen but he’s a good boy and goes to see his mother. Instantly, Carmen’s new squeeze is El Nino. When Jose returns to Havana, he confronts Carmen but she tells him she no longer loves him. As El Nino wins his fight in the ring to the roaring approval of the crowd, Jose stabs Carmen to death.
So, quite a night. And if it doesn’t have quite the pathos and relentless sense of Fate driving everyone to their doom as Bizet’s original, it makes up for it in energy and great performances. The cast are all Cuban and they sing in Spanish (with English subtitles). There’s a set of suitably decaying colonial grandeur (Tom Piper), a great onstage band and, boy, does that girl know how to work a fan.
Carmen la Cubana at Sadler’s Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London, EC1R until 18 August 2018. For more information and ticket please call the Box office 020 7863 8000 or visit the website.