Review of Carmina Burana
By Perry Tannenbaum
When the Charlotte Symphony Chorus was known as the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte, they hooked up on numerous occasions with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in the most popular piece in the classical repertoire, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. More often than not, those collaborations would happen at the end of a season – or even at the end of a music director’s tenure with the company.
Sure, it’s as important to end your season with a bang as it is to start that way, for it’s your last shot at convincing fence-sitting newbies in the hall – as well as existing subscribers who haven’t yet renewed – to pony up for next season’s concerts. But you can’t trot out the “Choral Symphony” every year, can you? Lately, the CSO has found another winning warhorse in their stable, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.
Last week’s trio of Carmina concerts marked the third time in the past eight years that Symphony programmed Orff’s settings of mostly Latin poems. Not one of these poems, dating back to the 11th-13th centuries, has the chaste plainsong flavor of the church or Christianity, except perhaps for the most famous – and fearsome – “O Fortuna.” The worship of Fortune and her wheel surfaces in the works of Chaucer and lingers on in the tragedies of Shakespeare, a medieval oddity if ever there was one. Orff’s music restores its primal, superstitious force.
But you need to hear it and see it live to get the full power that movie scores, CD recordings, and TV commercials only hint at. Some of the 24 songs are bawdy, others lyrical, some sensuous, and still others festive and carousing, as the section names suggest: “Springtime,” “In the Tavern,” and “The Court of Love.” The weirdest of the songs, “Olim Lacus Colueram” (“Once I Dwelt in the Lakes”), always sounded Oriental to me when I was growing up, listening to my dad’s vintage vinyl. I never suspected that the narrator was a swan getting roasted on a rotisserie!
Delaying his entrance onto the Belk Theater until this song began, countertenor Lawrence Zazzo literally made a meal out of it. Emitting a high-pitched lament bordering on sobs, Zazzo compounded the weirdness of his torment in way I would never have anticipated. As he reached the song’s final stanza, beginning “Now I am lying in a serving dish,” he pulled out a large handkerchief. Instead of dabbing his wounds or his tears, he stuffed the handkerchief into his shirt collar, turning it into a napkin. Then he reached into another pocket, fetched out what must have been a succulent duck leg, and began munching on it contentedly as he made his exit.
Hard to top that little cameo. But I’d say that Javier Arrey, shouldering most of the solo chores, was the best baritone we’ve had here in Carmina – and his alcoholic Abbot of Cockaigne wasn’t altogether anticlimactic in the wake of Zazzo’s roast duck. I wasn’t especially wowed by soprano Klara Ek’s initial efforts, but when she reached “In Trutina” (“My Feelings Alternate”) and its wavering between chastity and erotic enslavement, she was sublime.
Clocking in at slightly more than an hour, CSO’s Classics Series finale was more like a KnightSounds event at Knight Theater. Indeed, the last time Symphony and Chorus combined on Carmina in 2012, it was a KnightSounds event. At the Belk, when Christof Perick last conducted Carmina in 2008, the program was fortified with a Mozart Violin Concerto served up as an appetizer.
Marketing was also cleverer. After crowning her performance of “Dulcissime” with an orgasmic “Ah!” that topped all the hedonism we had heard before, soprano Heidi Meier didn’t simply vanish into history. Nope, she had already been announced as a guest performer for the season to follow.
That’s not to say that the audience was let down by the relative scarcity of music and promotional tie-in. When I heard various people in the grand tier humming “O Fortuna” as we exited to the lobby – or singing that Latin out loud – I sensed total satisfaction in the air.