Salvador Távora and his troupe of flamenco dancers and singers, La Cuadra de Sevilla, jump-started the City Center's fall season by telling us we've got it all wrong about Carmen. Our standard mythology on the subject, an alluring Romantic mix of sex and violent death, comes to us from Bizet's perennially popular opera of 1875, which was based on the 1845 novel by Prosper Mérimée. The most familiar dance embodiment of this tradition is Roland Petit's ballet of 1949, which -- despite a showbiz aesthetic that now looks dated as well as tacky -- still has a life in the international repertory because of its vivid, sultry duets.
Távora's revisionist Carmen, part of his crusade to reclaim an authentic Andalusian culture, is couched in terms bound to please in our current social ethos. His heroine is a paragon of independence and courage, defying everything she has going against her -- being a Gypsy, a woman, an exploited factory worker, and the natural target of the arrogant, brutal soldiers holding sway in the streets. According to Távora, the historical Carmen de Triana became a model for women's rights, both political and sexual, and a crusader for a liberal constitution in the face of a savage, repressive government.
Távora claims that his first information along these lines -- and of course his inspiration -- came from his great-great-grandmother when he was a mere slip of a boy and the raconteuse, once purportedly a cigar-factory co-worker of the "real" Carmen, was past her 100th birthday. He assures those who may find this unlikely that he subsequently did serious scholarly research to substantiate the tales he absorbed at his ancestor's knee. It seems not to have occurred to him that objective truth counts for little in the creation of a work of art and that the material he wants to convey in his Carmen, though it certainly makes for lively interviews, can't really be animated as a stage spectacle.
His production does have a crude power of its own that is mostly visual and musical. The music -- raucous and thrilling, like terrible cries in the night -- is provided by a uniformed bugle-and-drum band arranged in two phalanxes bordering the main action, which is kept front and center, bathed in a vertical shaft of glaring light while the rest of the stage remains in ominous gloom. A pair of flamenco guitarists supplements the band with thrumming vibrations. The "characters" are played by dancers and a trio of superb throaty-voiced female singers, who also act as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the lamentable passions being enacted and providing support and comfort to the protagonists. Framed by a gold-painted filigree arch hung with bells that clang wildly at climactic moments, the action alternates between archaic formal presentations, with figures parading themselves as seducers, hangmen, and the like, and set dance passages rooted in flamenco style. As Távora apparently intended, the overall effect is that of a stylized pageant, which works through bold, blunt force and has no truck with complexity and nuance.
In the roles of Carmen and Don José, Lalo Tejada and Marco Vargas are able and interesting, if not the most impassioned of flamenco practitioners. Tejada's appeal lies in her beauty and willowy grace. Vargas lacks the proud lift in the spine one expects in the genre, but his footwork is appropriately rapid and powerful. And then there's the horse. Just when the overlong production grows dull, a white stallion flourishing a spectacular mane and tail, whose rider represents the picador Carmen takes up with after Don José, charges on to execute (clumsily, alas) his Lipizzaner-style steps. Carmen proceeds to dance in the animal's orbit as if in the throes of sexual desire. It's a cheap trick -- which nevertheless might have come off if the horse had been better schooled and the dancer, unconvinced that this is the sort of challenge a liberated woman must embrace, weren't visibly cautious about being trampled.
La Cuadra de Sevilla
Salvador Távora's Carmen; at the City Center.