About this work
Ever since musical audiences recovered from their initial distaste for Georges Bizet's Carmen in 1875, the opera's inexhaustible fund of winning, memorable tunes has been used for potpourris, fantasies, and suites. The ballet that Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin produced on the score in 1967 stands somewhat apart from most of these. (Like many of Shchedrin's ballets, it was written for his wife, Maya Plisetskaya, who gave the premiere at the Bolshoi Theatre that same year.) Shchedrin thought it would be impossible to write a Carmen ballet without Bizet's music, not least since very few audiences could (or would care to) forget the glories of Bizet's score while listening to a new treatment of the story. But Shchedrin wanted to put his own stamp on the music, too, making himself if not an equal partner at least something above the level of arranger. He accomplished this first by scoring the suite for strings and percussion, forcing him to find inventive new sonorities to substitute for Bizet's well-loved timbres. The famous Habanera is stated here once by vibraphone and tympani in a bouncy duet -- certainly a sound far from Bizet's mind, but no less engaging for that. In other places, Shchedrin uses the percussion to unexpectedly rattle the melodic line, as in the "Changing the Guard" scene, when plinks and clanks barge in on the separate notes of the theme. Shchedrin also works more subtle distortions, tweaking notes, rhythms and chords until they sound ever so slightly dissimilar to Bizet's original and thus giving the score an occasional neo-Classical feel. Melodies are occasionally combined for "found" counterpoint; melodies are also sometimes cut short, or left without accompaniment, when Shchedrin thinks the listener can figure out what happenes, as when a big whipped-up climax in the Torero scene leads to nothing but the lowest percussion, pumping quietly, merrily, and obliviously along. Yet the big melodies are all quite recognizable, and the dramatic power of the score easily endures Shchedrin's interventions; the whole thing has the curious quality of feeling irreverent and deeply humble at the same time. The finale exemplifies this perfectly: melodies get twisted, thrown to exotic percussion, and otherwise trampled, but the resulting music, with its passionate climax and coda of distant bells and pizzicato strings, still has gravity and depth, due both to Bizet and to Shchedrin's interventions.
Curated by Julian Sarmiento, Double bassist