CARMEN was initially composed by Georges Bizet as a four act opera, with libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. Over the years it has become synonymous with drama of the most indulgently entertaining degree as it plays into the themes of love, lust, obsession, rebellion and jealousy… all the ingredients for a great story that places a beautiful seductress at the centre of it all.
With its theatrical edge, CARMEN has inspired many other iterations of Bizet’s creation, from novella to ballet. The latest version being the Cape Town City Ballet presented CARMEN, choreographed by Veronica Paeper. Paeper’s vision is a dramatic interpretation of the love triangle between the sultry Carmen, the dashing toreador Escamilio and the naïve soldier, Don Josè.
Transitioning CARMEN from opera to ballet is no easy feat, as lovers of Bizet’s most memorable opera would inevitably expect the same thrilling sensation that hearing the first lines, “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”, of the Habanera evokes. Paeper’s version succeeds in part because of the strong female leads the production is blessed with.
Opening night saw Leanè Theunissen step into the role of the beloved gypsy seductress. Her fiery interpretation was spectacular and told the tale of CARMEN without a word needing to be uttered. Cast in the role of the men into Carmen’s world was Kyle Baird as the besotted Don Josè and Quintin Jacobs as his rival, Escamilio. Though this be the traditional love triangle, this ballet version took my attention elsewhere as the female leads out-danced and performed their male counterparts on opening night: When Theunissen wasn’t grabbing the attention with her sultry ballet skills, Hannah Ward gracefully danced into the role of Micaela (Don Josè’s childhood sweetheart) with striking, restrained, technical allure that was absolutely beautiful to behold. The balance the interpretative performances of Theunissen and Ward brought to the stage that night was spellbinding. With two such strong performers in the roles of Carmen and Micaela, their sheer onstage presence is a hard ask for the male leads to match. Although both Baird and Jacobs were technically impressive on the night, they faded into the background, with especially Don Josè’s arc coming across as rather monotone in comparison, making the tragic pay-off of all the pursuing drama at the end a bit anti-climactic. Special mention must be made of Kiko Gomes in the role of the Pick Pocket, proving there are no small roles, as his comedic timing paired with his onstage presence and talent brought an added element of delight.
The drama was further upped by the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra's contribution on the night, as they brought Bizet’s required dramatic flair into the fray that is CARMEN’s destiny turned ballet. This was done to the great delight of the audience under the direction of conductor Brandon Phillips.
Paeper’s vision is supported by the scenic and costume design of Peter Cazalet and lighting design by Fahiem Bardien.
Paeper’s CARMEN as presented by the Cape Town City Ballet is onstage at Artscape Opera House until 25 June 2023, with tickets available online through Computicket. Please note that the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra will only be performing at select performances. The casting of the leads will also alternate between performances.