“A Modern-Day Carmen Fantasy”, The Philadelphia Orchestra's mélange of Bizet's familiar music, Shchedrin's hallucinogenic adaptation and Brian Sanders' powerful choreography, reflected the hard edges of Prosper Mérimée's novella alongside the unrelenting beauty of its physical passion. Against mysterious rustling in the strings, a dancer (Joe Rivera) summoned by chimes appears and steps into a picture frame stage rear where Carmen (Kelly Trevlyn) dressed exquisitely in black and red awaits in a backstage storage facility along with mannequins (mostly) dressed as dancers in a ballet about Carmen.

Kelly Trevlyn and Joe Rivera
© The Philadelphia Orchestra

This multimedia fantasy allowed the socially-distanced orchestra wearing covid masks to inhabit the entire stage, captured by the camera in a series of mid and long shots, while the JUNK company had an appropriately minimal, claustrophobic space in which to carry out their tragedy. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, balletic as always, conducted while wearing a covid mask bearing the Philadelphia Orchestra logo.

The entire apparatus of Shchedrin's orchestration is already transformative of Bizet's opera in ways which cry out for choreographic reinterpretation, and JUNK delivered. The Intermezzo, which began straightforwardly musically, was raised in intensity as it became a visual love duet, with a brief unmasking of desire that was half expected and yet was still an exhilarating surprise followed by drums and a proposal with ruby ring. They took Bolero not quite as fast as it could go but breathless instead which was far sexier. In Torero and Carmen the lovers did gymnastic things with a chair then, after a technical glitch – perhaps due to erotic overheating, which resulted in a "Be back after a brief rest" interlude – a love scene of the greatest tenderness took place on an exercise bar.

In the Adagio as the great tragic theme resounded with thumps in the bass, the dancers twirled suspended from straps on ropes, locked in pairs, violently torn apart, the sound opened up for the apex of the great melody, the moment of ethereal beauty transformed through love. There would be more suspended dancers, corpses this time, and three cellos singing with tears of passion leading to a stunning interlude for strings, a brutally explicit suicide (which I would not recommend for the young or emotionally vulnerable) which brought a visceral reinterpretation to a close with the same chimes that had opened the show.

Brian Sanders' JUNK
© The Philadelphia Orchestra

The intriguing conceit, the brilliant dancing, the startling, smooth precision of the orchestra's percussion and the gorgeous tonal sheen of the strings was captured in sound so detailed on a soundstage so wide it seemed entirely possible to hear the bow of an individual player bite into a string.

The camera often turned to Nézet-Séguin at moments of highest drama, and to the concertmaster, solo cellist and other members of the orchestra then pulled back to wonderful mid-range and long shots, and even when JUNK started doing wonderful weird things with their own close-ups, of toes and feet and calves and twisting suspended and jumping to the ground, it was a great treat to watch the mighty Philadelphia Orchestra play Shchedrin 's score for only the third time in its history.


This performance was reviewed from The Philadelphia Orchestra's video stream

*****