The staging of Orff’s popular cantata, including projections onto split screens and the inclusion of dancers, provides a handsome spectacle
By Leah Harrison
Syracuse University’s Goldring Arts Journalism Program
If you were sitting in the orchestra section of the Mulroy Civic Center Friday night you may have wondered if you’d accidentally joined a cult. As Syracuse Opera opened its production of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, singers in burlap cloaks and hoods wandered down the aisles and onto the stage, a small votive illuminating their lips as they quietly chanted indistinct melodies.
When everyone reached the stage, O Fortuna erupted, familiar to most western ears from a slew of NBA and Gatorade commercials, dramatic Arthurian films, or WWF Wrestling entrances. No piece of music represents the epic this well, and the Goliardic text bears as much relevance today as it did during its 12th-century authorship and 1936 musical setting: Oh fortune, like the moon you are changeable. The hardship of fortune’s ever-turning wheel resonates loudly with the American economic status and all it touches, evident by the masterwork’s place on so many programs this season throughout the country.
Carmina Burana is a manuscript compiling approximately 250 poetic texts from the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries. The authors were students and clergy, and the poems are in Latin, Middle German, and Old French. Many are satirical and cover topics spanning religious piety to tavern songs. Carl Orff composed the music for 24 of these.
The Syracuse Opera Chorus is a bit too small to make up the two choirs for which Orff had intended, so the drama of the opening number suffered somewhat. They sounded good, but their force was not enough to create the desired impact. After the introduction, the quiet brooding sections lacked energy and forward motion. This wasn’t a problem throughout the performance, only during the two iterations of O Fortuna (the number is reprised at the end of the work). A true representation of turning fate, but it’s too bad Lady Fortune began and ended at the bottom of her wheel.
The most developed staging occurred during O Fortuna, including a horizontally split screen covering the entire stage: On top, an opaque screen, and mesh on the bottom, behind which stood one of the choirs. A montage of culturally significant turmoil and achievements was projected on the top screen: first flight, various wars, portraits of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the mesh screen displayed shadowy, dancing figures, reminiscent of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave; the wheel of fortune turned on top of it all. It was busy, but effective. Other projections throughout the performance were mostly simpler and were contained within the top screen, like a detail from an illuminated manuscript.
Symphony Syracuse occupied the pit and played with passion, gusto, and sensitivity throughout the evening. Technical issues were completely out-of-mind, their skill heard clearly in each movement. The music is intricate, combining medieval modal leanings with early 20th-century rhythms, and the musicians showed depth and comprehension of this complexity.
Conductor Kenneth Kiesler made his debut with Syracuse Opera and generally did a nice job. His tempos were quite brisk, and at times the consonant-heavy Latin or Middle German text seemed jumbled, or at least not entirely together. There were also moments in the music that beg to linger, but the lush expansion was lost because of speed. There’s only about an hour’s worth of music here, so we had time to pull back on the reigns. Otherwise, Kiesler’s score interpretation was very exciting, with a great many variations in tempo and mood.
Also making a debut was Caitlin Lynch, who sang the soprano role. To say her tone was astounding would be putting it mildly. What a pleasure to have such magnificent talent on our stage! Rich in the highest and lowest ranges of the role (and everything between), her voice contained maturity and grace while maintaining its purity. Her liquid phrasing made her role as the benevolent goddess entirely believable.
Baritone Dan Kempson was a last-minute substitute for Craig Verm. Kempson matched Lynch’s eloquence in every way, despite having arrived in Syracuse less than 24 hours before the performance. His staging was flawless as far as I could tell, and he never lost chemistry with Kiesler. Kempson’s voice is smooth, warm and totally captivating. Even when he wasn’t singing, his stage presence drew you in. His character’s experience was at once universal and intimate. Kempson will be performing this role next week with the Florida Symphony Orchestra, and they are in for a triumphant experience.
Given the nature of this collection of works, the scenes in Carmina Burana are not necessarily meant to connect through narrative. Syracuse Opera nevertheless chose that route, connecting the individual songs by allowing each scene to happen to the same character (the inclusion of a single plot appeared to make it more operatic). It was constructed as trials and triumphs every man encounters as fortune changes, and the concept was a success. Towards the end, as the baritone is experiencing redemption, both he and Lynch were transcendent in their representation. I scooted to the edge of my seat and leaned forward. Both soloists are tremendous actors, a highly valued quality that’s rarely present in such young singers. Again, it was a great privilege for Syracuse Opera to host them.
Neal Ferreira debuted in the tenor role, featured during the In Taberna (In the Tavern) section. Portraying a tortured swan roasting on a spit, the tenor’s part is written extremely high (some notes even out of range) to give a strangled effect. Ferreira was incredibly convincing, his terror palpable and yielding a great deal of power. It’s too bad the tenor role has only one solo; I wanted to hear more from him.
The third and final section of Carmina begins with a children’s chorus, which was directed here by Joseph and Mary Buchmann. The children were very well prepared and sang beautifully, especially in some of the trickier parts. I was very impressed.
Productions of this work sometimes include a ballet, so Syracuse Opera used a pair of dancers, Nick Ziorbro and Morgan Drake. They performed traditional moves, which greatly enhanced the Primo vere (In Springtime) and Uf dem anger (On the Lawn) numbers. A slow-motion film of their dancing was projected on the top screen as they danced in real time, which gave the production a French, mixed media feel.
Syracuse Opera can certainly chalk this production up as a success. The performance gave the audience an opportunity to hear how interesting Orff’s music is (aside from the familiar O Fortuna), which was a treat. The production brought together a great deal of creativity and was a joy to attend. This weekend, Lady Fortune smiles on Syracuse.
Leah Harrison is a graduate student at Syracuse University’s Goldring Arts Journalism Program, based at the college’s renowned S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. A pianist and musicologist, Ms. Harrison holds a master’s degree in musicology from Florida State University and a bachelor’s degree in music history from Converse College. A native of Campobello, South Carolina, Ms. Harrison enjoys professional cycling, travel, and southern mountain music and culture.
What: Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana
Who: Syracuse Opera
When: 8 p.m. Friday, February 10, 2012
Final performance: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Crouse-Hinds Theater, John H. Mulroy Civic Center, 411 Montgomery St., Syracuse.
Tickets: $18 to $165
Contact: Box office: (315) 47-OPERA, http://syracuseopera.com