A sell-out success in the UK three years ago, La Cuadra de Sevilla’s flamenco production of Carmen is back on tour. For this version, choreographer and company founder Salvador Tavora drew on stories of the “real” Carmen that he had heard from his great-great-great grandmother, a tobacco factory worker in 19th-century Seville. Rather than the exotic fantasy of transgressive sexuality made famous by Mérimée’s novel and Bizet’s opera, Tavora roots Carmen’s story in the social conditions of the time. She struggles for self-determination against the disadvantages of being a woman, a worker and a Gypsy. Symbols of establishment order surround her: uniformed men, a military band, an ornate ecclesiastical arch hung with bells.
The antagonism only heightens the raw eroticism of their encounter, and the violence that it engenders is undisguised
But the heart of this tale remains not social context but the personal drama of passion and jealousy between Carmen and Don José, and this is performed with almost unrelenting intensity. Backed by the acid pealing of massed bugles and interspersed with the bruisingly powerful voices of four singers, the love between Carmen (Lalo Tejada) and Don José (Marco Vargas) is clearly born of and destined to end in conflict. The antagonism only heightens the raw eroticism of their encounter, and the violence that it engenders is undisguised. But what is lacking is animal passion – despite a grandiloquent theatrical gesture when Carmen later duets with a real white stallion, the horse matching her steps with its own careful dressage.
To dramatise the authenticity of this Carmen, Tavara uses traditional flamenco and Andalusian music. But he is no purist: he mixes in his own songs, and he is not above using Bizet favourites such as the Habañera and the Toreadors’ March. The only wrong note was an awkward narrative shift linking Carmen’s story to a wider quest for liberation, a struggle that flamenco can suggest more subtly on its own. With its melodic improvisations pierced by driving rhythms, the sinuous curves of the arms contrasting with the fierce rigour of the footwork – freedom set against discipline, and flesh against form – flamenco seems already to embody the idea of the caged human spirit.