From Seville to Strait Street: a new Carmen
Georges Bizet’s Carmen is recognised as an iconic modern opera for a number of reasons. It tells the tragic story of Don José and his infatuation for Carmen, a seductress who steals the heart of many. The drama unfolds in the early nineteenth-century streets of Seville, a perfect setting for a tempestuous story of romance, jealousy and death. Apart from the gripping storyline, the beguiling female protagonist and commanding music, Bizet’s masterpiece is the product of nineteenth-century ideas on art and society.
Carmen is credited for traversing conventions and combining different operatic genres. It brought together high art and popular forms to render a narrative of similar disposition; the characters represent diverse social classes. More so, they emerge from opposite ends of the moral spectrum. Military order and the world of the socially marginalised coincide only for their roles to be blurred, to the detriment of the enamoured Don José.
The experimental and provocative nature of Carmen makes it apparent as to why Dr. Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci chose this opera as the first to be performed in Strait Street. A main objective of the programme of artistic activities for the Strada Stretta Concept, a project which is under the auspices of the Valletta 2018 Foundation, has been to establish Strait Street as a home for the arts. The project is directed by Schembri Bonaci and managed by Melanie Farrugia Erixon.
Schembri Bonaci’s involvement in traditional and contemporary theatre is rather prolific. He has directed and produced works by Dario Fo, Goethe, Shakespeare, Federico Garcia Lorca and others in Malta and abroad. Contemporary theatre philosophy is central to his directing method, especially the avant-garde principles of the innovators Bertolt Brecht and Vesvolod Meyerhold. Both of these thinkers investigated the notion of interference. In short, Brecht interfered with the continuous narrative of the play, whilst Meyerhold pioneered a system for training actors called Biomechanics that heavily opposed the illusionistic tradition in theatre.
Schembri Bonaci’s rendition of Carmen in Strait Street, produced in collaboration with Splendid and the Embassy of France in Malta, will be an amalgamation of some experiments in modern and contemporary theatre in an unlikely space. The actors will be performing face-to-face with the audience in the street, near Splendid, the infamous hotel-turnedcultural venue. Whilst there have been theatre productions in Malta to have adopted this idea of using unconventional spaces wherein actors and audience interact, having an opera do the same is a new occurrence.
The process of producing Bizet’s Carmen for Strait Street has unfolded in a somewhat irregular manner. Schembri Bonaci’s apprenticeship with Dario Fo in Milan taught him Commedia dell’arte principles that have been heavily integrated into his own approach to directing. Improvisation is going to be a key feature of Thursday’s performance. The actors, who have been rehearsing for the past few months, will be working with and around the crowd. So the end result will be different to the version rehearsed without the audience.
Involving the crowd doesn’t only transform the rhythm of the actors, but also shapes the projection of the storyline. The crowd therefore will be active in determining the outcome of how the opera will be performed on the night. Intimacy and spontaneous energy are what make it such an exciting endeavour. This combined with Carmen’s notorious temperament and the brawls between her lovers will make the Strait Street version of Bizet’s opera a notable one.
On the event poster appears an image of a cross and the name ‘Carmen’ engraved into a wall in Strait Street. This was encountered coincidentally. It turns out that graffiti would be engraved to mark the place where a person died when a conflict would end tragically. The story of this graffiti beautifully mirrors that of the opera. The two Carmens are victims, in art and in life.
The role of Carmen will be performed by Clare Ghigo, a mezzo soprano who is increasingly garnering accolades locally and internationally due to her talent and versatility. Tenor Charles Vincenti will play Don José, and bass-baritone Louis Andrew Cassar will be the bullfighter Escamillo. Bass singer Ken Scicluna will perform as the officer Zuniga. They will be accompanied by the Junior Choir of the
Johan Strauss School Music.
The participating musicians are a group of Maltese and international established and upcoming performers. These are: Vincenzo Picone, Matthew Fenech, Yuri Charyguine, Luke Baldacchino, Emel Hasanoglu, Gjogji Cincievski, Tom Armitage and Jess Rymer.
These classically-trained musicians will be working alongside of four għannejja; Anglu Theuma (ilkina), Joe Mike Agius (tas-seba’ rġiel), Mikiel Cumbo (l-iżgej) and Johnny Saliba (ta’ Birżebbuġia), and the guitarists Frans Casha (ta’ saqajn) and Joe Bonello (skuti). The għannejja will be the narrators of the story, following a text penned by Alfred Grech.
Students from the Department of History of Art were involved in developing the visual aspect of Strada Stretta’s Carmen. The MA Fine Arts students worked on designing the performance space and produced bozzetti to realise the transformation of the street into an opera. Another MA student from the department, Luke Azzopardi, designed the costume being worn by Carmen. Azzopardi is rapidly making a name for himself in the local fashion scene with his elegant and bold designs.
What is certainly striking about this contemporary adaptation of Carmen is its vitality; the eclectic international cast and the participation of a good number of young performers and creatives have injected fresh energy into its staging. Opera remains a leading art form, yet it seems that it no longer appeals to the newer generations. Musical theatre is the preferred genre today, with emerging actors aspiring to perform on Broadway and London’s West End. Therefore, it is fundamental for opera to be regenerated in order to remain relevant. Schembri Bonaci is working towards this aim. There is a reason why particular works become part of the artistic canon; it is because their narrative, history and aesthetics resonate in the collective cultural consciousness. Carmen is one of those operas that has the ability to communicate to a global audience despite having originated in Paris. The Strada Stretta Concept will be presenting a new Carmen without losing the traditional characteristics that make it a timeless masterpiece.
Carmen will take place on Thursday 24 November 2016 at 8.30pm. Entrance is free of charge. The Strada Stretta Concept would like to thank the following: the Embassy of France in Malta, Splendid, Jason Masini, Rocks Bar, Johan Strauss School of Music, Jean Paul Borg, Noel D’Amato and Katelia
Clare Ghigo as Carmen Photo by Elisa Von Brockdorff