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Love, jealousy, murder, and an entire cadre of percussionists – who could ask for anything more?

The Technicolor frenzy that is Carmen by Georges Bizet (1838-1875) shines in this setting by Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin with an even more extravagant light than in the opera itself. The piece calls for a full string orchestra accompanied not by winds or brass, but by an astonishing 47 percussion instruments, capturing in this unusual orchestration the eroticized fervor and frenzy of the Bizet original.

The music loosely follows the plot of Bizet’s opera: Don José, a soldier, is being prompted to marry the orphan Micaëla. But when he meets the seductive cigarette girl Carmen, he is enthralled by her, even as she continues to torment him. His affections are never extravagant enough for her tastes, and even after he leaves his military duties to be with her – going so far as to let her escape arrest, which sends him to prison himself – Carmen remains untrue; she falls in love with the toreador Escamillo, and José murders her in jealousy.

In Shchedrin’s scoring, the result is giddy, ravishing, and sometimes absurd – all characteristics of Bizet’s opera itself. Interestingly, it should be noted that Shchedrin created this arrangement for his wife, the ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. With a little imagination, it is possible to see how these thirteen movements, played without pause, could easily be as effective a setting for dancers as the original was for vocalists.

The Introduction sets the stage with hints of the famous Habanera theme, set into motion by chimes and shimmering strings. This peace, however, does not last long, interrupted by the Dance’s mighty introduction. In the opera, this music is the Intermezzo to the fourth act; here, it is simply music for a jolly, fierce dance, aided by the more-than-judicious use of castanets. When this dervish finally whirls to a stop, the dashing First Intermezzo appears, featuring the main theme in the marimba. The effect is at once comic and then mysterious, as the opera’s Fate motive appears for the first time, accompanied by guillotine-like interruptions by the lower end of the ensemble. For the first time in the ballet, the listener is reminded of the brutal results of José’s love for Carmen, and the music simply fades away.

The Change of the Guard sets an entirely different tone: an almost mockingly dignified snare drum roll opens this procession, leading not to a stately march but instead a giddy assembly of toy soldiers, tottering, then teetering on the edge of the burlesque. On the tail of the guards follows the Entrance of Carmen and Habanera; here, the tone waxes dramatic, reflecting Carmen’s seductive ways. The tension dissolves, exposing a more romantic theme – perhaps here we can see Carmen through the loving eyes of José? – and a sudden crash into the Habanera. A Scene of music from the end of the second act of the opera follows, its opening string pizzicati giving the feeling that something mysterious is in motion. This is the longest section of the work, aside from the finale, and the music has time to range from love (marked by lush strings) to doom (a return of the guillotine-like motive) to a final note of drama.
The Second Intermezzo relieves the tension with its short, sweet presentation of the intermezzo to Act III; then, the Bolero interrupts with the famous Farandole from L’Arlésienne, another Bizet stage work. This is one of two segments of the ballet drawn from music outside of Carmen’s score. Immediately after, Shchedrin launches into the Toreador theme, music for Escamillo that, despite its swaggering instrumentation, still manages to step lively (as any good toreador would). Carmen then joins Escamillo in Toreador and Carmen, a theme taken from La jolie fille de Perth. The dismal Fate theme then returns, this time in the Adagio, followed by José’s innocent Flower Song in praise of his love. But Carmen is still scheming, and in The Fortune Teller the cards present her with the ominous news that not only will she be killed, but that Don José will die as well.

From here, all is left to fate, and there is little more to do than reprise the work’s music in a colorful Finale. This final section is essentially a six-minute summary of the opera, running through themes familiar and unfamiliar before returning full circle to the chiming, promising Habanera fragments from the beginning of the piece.

— Jessica Schilling is the Assistant Editor of Hollywood Bowl Magazine.