Dir. Mark Domford-May. SAfr. 2004. 120mins.

Bizet's Carmen,arguably the most popular grand opera written and certainly the one mostfrequently adapted to the big screen, enjoys another outing, this time to SouthAfrica, for U-Carmen eKhayelitsha

Mark Domford-May's updatedversion is set in the present day, performed by local talents, sung in Xhosaand shot in a town (eKhayelitsha), near Capetown. A pleasant experience, itadds little to the Prosper Merimee story or Bizet's original score, but isstill the kind of smart venture that has a good chance of becoming a hit athome, travel well to festivals and generate interest in repertory programming,more so given its surprise Golden Bear victory at Berlin at the weekend.

The brainchild of theatreveterans Dornford-May and conductor Charles Hazlewood, it follows on fromsimilar transitions to the stage that premiered in South Africa to favourablereviews.

The indomitable Carmen has,over the centuries, come to symbolise sensuality, ferocious passion and fierceindependence as a woman who prized her freedom above all else.

In Bizet's original operashe turned the head of the love-stricken Don Jose, a love-stricken corporal whowas supposed to keep her in jail. When he relented and let her go, she insteadfeel into the arms of bullfighter Don Escamillo, causing Don Jose to seekterrible revenge.

In the South African versionthe mechanics of the storyline remain essentially unchanged. Carmen (Malefane)is a cigarette girl, Don Jose is a policeman called Jongikhaya (Andile Tshoni)and Escamillo is a famous singer named Lulamile (Zorro Sidloyi), home for avisit.

Jongikhaya forsakes hisduties for Carmen's sake before she persuades him to join a gang of smugglers.Ultimately she finds death at his hands as her new lover, Lulamile, celebrateshis triumphal return home before an ecstatic crowd.

Since this is an abridgedversion of the opera, using the original score and orchestrations andrelatively few local touches, so the musical performances become all the morecrucial - and its is to Dornford-May's credit that he has pulled together acast of remarkable singers.

Malefane, also one of theauthors of the Xhosa lyrics, has a deep, warm, appealing voice, particularly inthe lower registers.

But while she may bemelodious to the ear she does not have quite the temper nor the naturallydefiant attitude of a Dorothy Dandridge or Julia Jimenez, as required by thepart. And without a lead performer to electrify the audience with her presence,Carmen doesn't really work.

Tshoni handles his role withremarkable proficiency and it is a pity that Sidloyi's resonant bass-baritoneis not given more space (many Carmen aficionados will be dismayed that almostthe entire Torreador Song, the opera's best known piece of music, hasbeen cut).

The rest of the cast oftenlook uncomfortable when they have to break into song, possibly because theXhosa lyrics have been adapted to contemporary South African life while Bizet'smusic remains essentially untouched. No wonder they look more relaxed whenevera South African song comes along.

Production values stresslocal colour with documentary snippets of the town life inter-cut betweenscenes. There are also attempts to justify relocating the story with some timidallusions to politics, police corruption or life conditions in the slums, butthese are never really worked into the fabric of the plot itself.

Fluid camerawork allows thecast to move about freely, a distinct advantage for performers with little orno experience of film.

Prod co: Spier Films
Int'l sales:
Spier Films
Mark Dornford-May, RossGarland
Mark Dornford-May, AndiswaKedama, Pauline Malefane based on Carmen by Georges Bizet
Giulio Biccari
Ronnelle Loots
Sound des:
Barry Donnelly
Simon Rice
Musical dir:
Charles Hazlewood
Main cast:
Pauline Malefane,Andiswa Kedama, Andile Tshoni, Lungelwa Blou, Zorro Sidloyi