Friday, May 05, 2006

A Carmen in All Her Glory

One of the problems plaguing most modern stagings of Bizet's opera Carmen is no one knows what to do with Carmen herself. In a world that clings to the notion that women are girls, that girls are bad or good, that good girls aren't especially sexy, that bad girls aren't especially sympathetic, and that sex objects can never be subjects, it's hard to strike the right note with Carmen. She is complicated and sensual and capricious and independent and mysterious even to herself. She does not suffer fools gladly but she suffers wildly and almost randomly for love. She moves and sings not only as if she knows how to have sex but as if she likes it. Not a role for an actress who cannot tolerate being disliked; not a role for any woman unwilling to swallow up all the oxygen in the room; and not, certainly, a role for a woman who's swallowed the Western criteria for what comprises an attractive woman.

Enter U-Carmen e-Khayaletsha), a film adapation of the opera set in an South African township and sung in the language Xhosa, complete with its clicks. From the first, classic ensemble number at the cigarette factory, in which the women workers dance and the men ogle them mournfully, the film's concept clicks into place. South Africa, a place where the term "freedom" has not yet devolved into a cliche bandied about by gangsters in navy suits, provides the ideal backdrop for this pursuit of integrity and passion. And with her massive grace and her wide, plum-colored voice, Pauline Malefane proves an ideal Carmen.

Is one even allowed to criticize an opera plot without seeming philistine? For the push-and-pull between Carmen and her lover has always seemed to me passive-aggressive rather than passionate, and even this production can't transcend Bizet's last act. But it's those first minutes that linger: that first impatient shake of Malefane's braids, and that long stare she fixes on enemies and lovers alike to subjugate them to her snaky will.

Malfene and her director, Mark Dornford-May, were present at the q and a afterward. In person she is formidable as the character she portrays. It takes a bit to register how young she is because she so unapologetically and naturally takes up space. Not that she is forbidding — she giggled and stuck out her tongue when the audience greeted her with deafening applause — but she does not cowtow to the limitations that hobble most women (and with which most women hobble themselves). She told the audience how Dornford-May had not wanted to cast her in his production until she campaigned heavily for a second audition. How she then pushed for the role of Carmen and how, when he treated her roughly, she called him on it. For that matter, any thing he tried to gloss over in the q and a itself, she called him on again. But with such a big smile and such a calm authority that he, and everyone else, looked merely relieved to be corrected.

Ebertfest 2006 was undeniably a triumph. It produced even more more heated dining debates than last year, more great revelations about the business and film of art, and more films that reflected the full gamut of human emotion and experience. My only true quibble was that it lacked that enough onstage and onscreen female presences — which only made the two great female vocal performances bookending the festival all the more poignant. For near the end of the q and a, Malfene sang a traditional African song with very little prompting and absolutely no warmup, and she filled the Virginia Theater so completely that it seemed it would never be empty again. It was a sound that followed me all the long way home.

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