Carmen Goes to the Ballet



In many ways, Bizet’s Carmen can be regarded as a perfect little opera. It’s a drama in a very economical package and with a perfectly balanced orchestra / vocal distribution. The orchestra has its own role but never fights the voices it’s supporting. In 1967, it was updated as a ballet for Maya Plisetskaya with the Bolshoi Ballet. The composer behind it was Maya Plisetskaya’s husband, the Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin (b. 1932). What’s most interesting about Shchedrin’s orchestration is the complete removal of the wind and brass sections and their replacement by four batteries of percussion instruments.

Listen to Bizet’s Habanera and then Shchedrin’s and image

Bizet: Carmen: Act I: Habanera: L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (Magdalena Kožená, Carmen; Berlin Deutsche Opera Chorus ; Berlin Deutsche Opera Children’s Choir ; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; Simon Rattle, cond.)
Shchedrin and Plietskaya on stage at the Mariinsky

Shchedrin and Plietskaya on stage at the Mariinsky

For Shchedrin’s version, there’s no singing and Carmen’s vocal part is taken over by the strings, but listen to the addition, for example of the celeste, the occasional percussion snaps, the emphasis with the cymbals, and we have a very different piece.

Shchedrin: Carmen Suite: V. Carmen’s Entrance and Habanera (Russian National Orchestra; Mikhail Pletnev, cond.)
When we see it danced by Maya Plisetskaya, we can appreciate how the percussion adds the emphasis that she then increases with her gestures. When you’re used to a very full stage for this scene, with the cigarette girls, the soldiers, the children, etc. to see the empty stage with the “chorus” reduced to a set of heads at the back of the stage completely changes the emphasis of the piece and focuses it down on our two protagonists.

What’s even more interesting is to hear Shchedrin’s music for Carmen and the toreador and then see how much more intense it is when danced:

Shchedrin: Carmen Suite: X. Torero and Carmen (Russian National Orchestra; Mikhail Pletnev, cond.)

To see an opera recast as a ballet and then with such a change in the orchestration makes us think again about those over-full stages. An empty stage sometimes says so much more.

For the full ballet, see

The ending is particularly interesting: her meeting with Don Jose is not outside the bull ring, as it is typically staged in the opera, but inside it (starting around 37:11), preceded by a dance by Escamillo and a very small bull. The pattern of jealous plays out: Carmen dances with Escamillo , Carmen dances with Don Jose, Don Jose dances with the bull, Carmen chases the bull, and is caught by Don Jose’s knife. As Carmen dies, so does the bull. Olé!

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