Monday, February 25, 2013

Luck be a Lady

Photo by Heather Thorne
Who: The Nashville Ballet
What: Carmina Burana
Where: Dance St. Louis at the Touhill Center
When: February 21-24, 2013

So: Take the 40 dancers of the Nashville Ballet; add 120 singers and 60 musicians, including The University of Missouri-St. Louis Orchestra and Singers, The Bach Society of Saint Louis, and The St. Louis Children’s Choir; then set them loose on Carl Orff's 1936 Carmina Burana on the Touhill Center's big stage. What you get is an impressive piece of dance theatre that succeeds both as Spectacle and as Art.

That couldn’t be more appropriate, since Orff envisioned this material as the basis for a choral cantata with some mimed action and “magic tableaux.” And, in fact, the first performance in Frankfurt in 1937 was fully staged, with dancers, sets, and costumes. It’s usually presented strictly as a concert piece these days, but the composer’s theatrical intentions are evident in every note.

The first (and least sexually explicit) of Orff’s Trionfi trilogy of choral theatre works, Carmina Burana derives its title from an 1847 collection of secular poetry by anonymous authors from the 12th and 13th centuries that turned up in 1803 in the Benedictine monastery in Beuren, Germany. As befits their “vulgar” status, the poems celebrate not the theoretical joys of heaven but rather the practical ones of earth: spring, sex, food, sex, drink, gambling, and sex. They also recognize something that we moderns have lost track of, to our detriment: the heavy influence of blind chance on our lives. The setting of “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi” (“Fortune, Empress of the World”), which opens and closes the work, reminds us that the wheel of fortune is always turning and that none of us should get too cocky, as the universe has a tendency to dope-slap the excessively smug.

Nashville Ballet Artistic Director and choreographer Paul Vasterling and visual designer Eric Harris emphasize that centrality of Lady Fortuna by making her a key character in the ballet. Danced with steely precision by Sadie Bo Harris, Fortuna begins and ends the evening surrounded by a massive, stage-filling “wheel of fortune” skirt that neatly establishes her dominance, but she also interacts with individual dancers to emphasize fate’s capricious influence.

This realization of Carmina Burana was, in fact, filled with striking images that beautifully complement the lyrics. Let me cite a few that will, I hope, give you a feel for the remarkable quality of what Mr. Vasterling, Mr. Harris, and the dancers accomplished.

Photo by Heather Thorne
For “In Taberna quando sumus” (labeled “The Drinking Song” here) the stage was filled with dancers in wine-red outfits reeling about in drunken but very precise abandon while the lyrics reeled off a list of the many types who come to the tavern to imbibe. The bird being roasted for dinner in “Olim lacus coleuram” (The Roasted Swan”) was costumed all in white and danced entirely en pointe, as though trying to escape the flames. She was eventually surrounded in fiery red-on-white banners and carried off the stage by dancers in red. Alexandra Meister danced the role with tragic grace the night we attended.

The “Spring” section underscored the lyrical parallels between the awakening of the earth and the awakening of human desire with a succession of colorful and flirtatious dances. In “Floret silva nobilis” (“The Maypole”), for example, the dancers were costumed in spring-like pastels and, at one point, danced around a human Maypole. “Chramer, gib de varwe mir” (“More Joys of Spring”) made the sex/spring parallel even more obvious with poses of adolescent sexual braggadocio and cheerful coupling.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The Nashville Ballet’s Carmina Burana was a visual treat of the highest order.

Musically, things were a bit more uneven. Perhaps the best work came from the combined voices of the Bach Society and UMSL singers. Deployed on risers behind and to the sides of the dancers, they were powerful, to say the least. Soprano Stella Markou and tenor Tim Waurick sounded great (Mr. Waurick’s roasting swan was one of the most dramatic I’ve heard). Baritone Jeffrey Heyl turned in a respectable performance of some very difficult music (“Dies, nox et omnia,” with its rapid switch between falsetto and chest voice, is a real killer), although he was not always as passionately engaged as I would have liked. The St. Louis Children’s Choir, deployed in box seats house right and left, were also most impressive, although they did tend to get a bit out of synch with the orchestra in the tempo changes towards the end of “Tempus est iocundum.”

The UMSL Orchestra, conducted by James Richards, had some of the usual weaknesses I associate with student ensembles, especially in the strings, but for a big wind-and-percussion piece like Carmina Burana that doesn’t matter so much. They certainly did a good job overall and can feel justifiably proud of the results.

The evening opened with Bach’s Cantata No. 10 ("Meine Seele erhebet den Herren"), danced by MADCO and choreographed by Dance St. Louis Artistic and Executive Director Michael Utoff. As a curtain raiser and contrast to the more spectacular and overtly theatrical main event, it was an excellent choice. Mr. Utoff’s often whimsical choreography was a nice match for what the program notes describe as MADCO’s “versatile and athletic style”, complimenting the religious text without overtly illustrating it. The final “Chorale,” in which the dancers create the momentary illusion of a cathedral-like space, was particularly lovely—as were Felia Davenport’s simple, dark blue costumes.

Dance St. Louis’s Bach/Orff double bill will be over by the time you read this, of course, but I still want to congratulate them on bringing such a big, ambitious project to town. Fully staged productions of Carmina Burana are rare (we haven’t had one locally in a couple of decades, at least), so the chance to see one of this quality was most welcome. The Dance St. Louis season continues with New York City Ballet MOVES March 8 and 9 at the Fox. For more information:

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