Review: ‘Carmina’ aims high, overloads Senses

Guest review by: Leah Harrison

My favorite moments in music performance are those when, as a member of the audience, I am able to make a connection to something personal — something musical that relates to something extra-musical, extending a memory or experience into the present space. Because I want music to be meaningful, it doesn’t take much — I am looking and listening for the connection.

On Saturday night, Chautauqua Institution mounted its final performance of Carmina Burana, forgetting to leave room for anything I or any other attendee brought to the table.

Carl Orff’s work is spectacular, requiring several large ensembles, soloists and a children’s choir, all of whom performed admirably. And certainly, Carmina was intended to be a theater piece, so no grudge exists against the inclusion of a balletic element — many productions of this work include one. These forces are enough to overwhelm any audience, but Chautauqua’s inter-arts production also included projections on the ceiling and “enhancements” to Orff’s music in the form of nine additional pieces presented by a merry early-music ensemble. A problem emerges when spectacle is overdone, obscuring the glory of individual elements.

Projections have become a popular way to present the visual on stage — they are less expensive than building sets, and the digital medium titillates a certain faction here in the 21st century. I was amused by Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” projected before the performance, and saw many appropriate parallels between its subject matter and Carmina. Clever, I thought. But the projected spinning wheel of fortune laid over some epic clouds during “O Fortuna” showed me I was not going to be trusted to think or draw conclusions, but was instead going to be spoon-fed literal and obvious imagery. In the springtime section, we saw ice melt and spring flowers bloom as the dancers flirted on stage; if the rights weren’t so expensive, they could have used the twitterpated scene from Disney’s “Bambi” for a similar effect. No subtlety here. Not only were the projections not needed with so many visual stimuli already in play, they were patronizing in subject matter and amateur in their rendering.

Lest you think I am all gripes and grumbles, let me sing the praises of the musicians: the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra is a truly fine ensemble, and I was delighted to hear its fantastic brass fanfare in “Were Diu Werlt Alle Min.” Soprano Leah Wietig’s voice floated through flowery runs, both full and fresh — she was particularly well cast, as was Philip Cutlip, whose baritone was the right amount of dramatic and dignified. The choral ensemble sang well, though diction was not always as clear as it could have been. There were several moments when things weren’t quite together, most notably between the organ and early-music ensemble. The score itself is full of lush moments, and the combined forces ultimately did them great justice, if you were able to focus.

Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s choreography suffered from the same problems of obviousness as the projections — in the piece from the Abbot’s perspective, the dancer crossed himself about a dozen times; as the singers bemoaned the wounds of Fortune, the garish grim reaper made an appearance; in the tavern section, two barmaids were groped and humped and, in a surprising moment, one of the debaucherous fellows furiously rubbed his face back and forth between the woman’s breasts.

The early-music ensemble inserted nine pieces between the movements, focusing on the style that inspired Orff. They deserve credit for communicating the humor and levity of the piece, which often isn’t fully acknowledged, but went overboard and made it cheesy, as well as interrupting any organicism Carmina has.

A woman sitting behind me asked her friend about the parameters of the show several times — she couldn’t understand what the unifying factor was, and eventually concluded that it was a variety show. It was clear that most adored the performance, despite (or perhaps because of) its resemblance to a Lawrence Welk show, and I am truly delighted they did. But of course, Carmina does have a unifying factor — it was just obscured by an intention to innovate (and perhaps a lack of clear explanation in the reading material) that ended in sensory overload and confusion from having gone too far. This manneristic approach to spectacle made it difficult to focus on excellent music and worthwhile performances.

  Leah Harrison is a writer and editor specializing in the arts. She has written for The New York Philharmonic, Symphony magazine, The Charlotte Observer and The Post and Courier. She is currently Spoleto Festival USA’s institutional writer and holds a master’s degree in historical musicology from The Florida State University and a second master’s in arts journalism from Syracuse University. Leah was The Chautauquan Daily’s opera reporter in 2012.