Bizet’s Carmen seems to have had more incarnations than Vishnu. Sarasati and Busoni wrote celebrated variations on its main themes for violin and piano respectively, Rodion Shchedrin turned it into a ballet for the Bolshoi, Otto Preminger moved it from Sevilla to Chicago in Carmen Jones, Horant Hohlfeld put it on ice with Katarina Witt and Robert Townsend turned it into the contemporary Carmen: A Hip Hopera set in decidedly un-Andalusian Philadelphia. The latest metamorphosis of Monsieur Mérimée’s sultry slattern by Latvian virtuoso accordionist Ksenija Sidorova is arguably even more original.

Roberto Koch and Ksenija Sidorova © Kaspars Balamovskis
Roberto Koch and Ksenija Sidorova
© Kaspars Balamovskis

Originally written in collaboration with German arranger Joachim Schmeisser, Sidorova used the talents of five extraordinary fellow musicians to explore the depths and delights of this fascinating work. Sidorova’s Carmen is in all respects an intriguing musical pastiche of not only Bizet’s original score but also includes lengthy sections of Piazzolla, Ramirez, traditional Latino and Cuban music and jazz-like improvisations. Certainly a number of the more easily recognizable arias and orchestral passages from Bizet’s opera are evident. But like a complex musical kaleidoscope, there are also tantalizing thematic hints and allusions, melodic and harmonic fragmentations, frequent changes of key signature and tempi and unexpected alternation of instrumentation which make this composition absolutely captivating.

The centerpiece of the performance was unquestionably the star accordion player and local Rigan Ksenija Sidorova. It also didn’t hurt that she looks drop-dead gorgeous: there was certainly no shortage of besotted Baltic Don José’s in the audience! Dressed in flame red in stark contrast to the supporting male musicians in black, Sidorova looked rather like a contemporary Carmen in haute-couture.

If there is any criticism of the concept, it is that the accordion has somewhat limited tone colour variability but this was more than compensated for by Sidorova’s superb protean playing and the remarkably equitable sharing of  major thematic material, including some spectacular drum and percussion accompaniment and solo improvisation by young Israeli Itamar Doari. This is a musician who is not only an immaculate percussionist but absolutely engrossed in the performance as a whole, whether he is actually playing or not.

One particularly interesting aspect about the percussion part is that it surprisingly eschews castanets. This is definitely an arrangement of subtlety and nuance. There is nothing predictable about the instrumentation at all, and the insertion of lengthy sections of other music, particularly Piazzolla, is never jarring nor incongruous. Inclusion of the Argentinean bandoneón, expertly played by young Peruvian Claudio Constantini (who also displayed remarkable prowess on the piano, sometimes even playing both instruments simultaneously) provided a wonderful variation of timbre and when in tandem with the accordion, a fascinating tonal contrast. It was regrettable that the evocative bandoneón was only heard in the first half of the programme.

In any adaption, especially one covering almost two hours of music, some sections will work better than others. The tender entr’acte to Act III (called here “Sunrise over Seville”) originally scored for solo harp, flute and clarinet, lost no small degree of poignancy with the instrumentation available. Similarly, the arrangement of Don José’s “La fleur que tu m'avais jetée” (rather tritely entitled “Love Song”) suffered from a lack of supporting cor anglais colouring and too much incompatible high octave rippling on the piano. However, these are very small objections to an adaptation which was otherwise both beguiling and hugely entertaining.

A movement called “Daybreak” based on Carmen’s castanet dance managed to be both mini-fugal, pertly contrapuntal and rollicking ragtime. Irresistible. The rapid changes of rhythm and syncopation in the seguidilla were deliciously crisp, in no small measure due to consistently impeccable percussion playing.

Before a seductive section called “La siesta” (which briefly segued into mystical Moorish melisma) German guitarist Reentko Dirks played some superlative flamenco improvisations with Yepes-like technical virtuosity and Segovia-ish sensitivity. The “Mêlons! Coupons!” card scene trio (“In the cards”) was an hilarious pastiche of 1920s foot-tapping big band jazz rhythms with some fine contrasting counter-melody string playing from Venezuelans Alejandro Loguercio (violin) and Roberto Koch (double bass). The wistful “Ah! Je t'aime” Act IV duet between Carmen and Escamillo (“Date with Destiny”) drew further sonorous sounds from the violin.

One of cleverest jazz adaptations was of “Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre” (better known as the Toreador Song) with especially subtle and cheeky playing from piano and percussion. 5/8 time also made a surprise appearance. The concluding “À la bohémienne” (aka the raucous “Les tringles des sistres tintaient” opening to Act II) again showed Sidorova’s flawless sense of rhythm and absolute technical mastery of her instrument.

Apart from the extraordinarily profound musicality of all performers involved, it was their obvious delight in what they were doing which was so infectious. The only bigger smiles in the large outdoor auditorium were on the faces of the audience.

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