It takes a village — around 250 people to be precise — to mount this staged production of the ever-popular “Carmina Burana.”
The orchestra pit will be full to overflowing with musicians and their instruments, including two grand pianos. The stage similarly will be well occupied by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus and College of Charleston Concert Choir, 150 singers joining forces to incant the medieval poetry composer Carl Orff set to music.
“Carmina Burana” is Latin for “Songs from Beuern,” the name given to a collection of 254 poems from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries that were discovered in a Bavarian monastery in 1803. The texts often satirize the Catholic Church and include such topics as love and sex, gambling and drinking, morality and spirituality, wealth and greed, fate and more.
Perhaps the big lesson of the work is that the Rota Fortunae — Wheel of Fortune — spins randomly, providing some with a windfall and others with dust.
Patrons at the performances 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 20, and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 21, at the Gaillard Center will recognize the opening chorus, “O fortuna,” immediately. It’s been used in countless movies and commercials and TV shows. Orff set 24 of these irreverent poems and dramatic texts to music in 1935 and 1936, and the resulting cantata has been a big hit ever since.
A great romp
O Fortune, like the moon you are changeable, ever waxing and waning. Hateful life, first oppresses, and then soothes as fancy takes it; poverty, and power it melts them like ice.
The words were written by students and monks, and the 24 pieces are organized into five sections: “Fortune, empress of the world,” “In Spring,” “In the meadow,” “In the tavern,” “Court of Love,” plus an ode to a couple of mythical ladies and a repeat of “O fortuna.”
The big choir, which includes two children’s choruses drawn from Moultrie and Gregg middle schools, is put to good use, but the work also calls for baritone, counter-tenor and soprano soloists — Jeff Byrnes, Ricard Bordas and Deanna Breiwick respectively. The vocal writing, whether loud or soft, is all in-your-face, homophonic brilliance.
Rhythm is the binding element, the main thing Orff relies on to create a propulsive and cohesive work, and it changes a lot, sometimes from measure to measure.
“The rhythms are infectious,” said Rob Taylor, preparer of the chorus. “They’re a bit of a challenge sometimes but, generally speaking, that’s a ton of fun. It’s one of the great romps of choral writing.”
The chorus also must contend with some unusual language and strive to spit out the words with vigor.
“It’s a challenge for the choir because it’s not a language we're accustomed to doing. It’s kind of a medieval German and Germanic Latin, so we’re not pronouncing it in the stereotypical ecclesiastical Italian-Latin way,” Taylor said.
Orff originally intended for the work to be staged, connecting every musical moment with some sort of action. “Carmina Burana” today is usually presented in a concert format.
But not this time. For this production the Charleston Symphony is teaming up with the Nashville Ballet.
Three dance sections
Shopkeeper, give me color to make my cheeks red, so that I can make the young men love me, against their will. Look at me, young men! Let me please you!
Katie Vasilopoulos, a company dancer playing the role of the Swan, said the production was introduced in 2009 by Artistic Director Paul Vasterling and has been presented in Nashville a few times.
“This is our third time touring it to another city,” Vasilopoulos said. “We’re just excited to bring it to a new audience.”
Vasterling’s ballet version of “Carmina Burana” is organized into three main sections — Medieval, Tavern, Parchment — which guide the action.
“Each has its own feel,” Vasilopoulos said. It starts down-to-earth, emphasizing the human condition. Dancers wear flats, she said. In the tavern, the women are on pointe, the dresses are streamlined. The Parchment section features a new set of paper-like costumes, with words from the text projected upon them.
The Fortuna character remains present throughout, personifying the wheel of fortune that gives and takes away.
“The swan is fun because I get to be in a lot of the big numbers that occur, but then I have two solo sections that usually tend to be fan favorites,” Vasilopoulos said.
On stage, the dancers are surrounded by sound, which energizes them, she said. Off stage they are frantically changing costumes in anticipation of the next section.
When we are in the tavern, we do not think how we will go to dust, but we hurry to gamble, which always makes us sweat.
Ken Lam, music director of the Charleston Symphony, will conduct from the pit. It will be a logistical strain, for the chorus will be far away, at the back of the stage, with dancers maneuvering in front of them. Establishing clear sightlines and illuminating the choir will be critical, Lam said. The soloists will remain offstage until they are needed to sing.
“It’s going to be quite intricate,” he said. “We are there serving the ballet. We will try to be as accurate as possible, to basically put the dancers in the best light. I’m looking forward to that challenge.”
Ballet Evolution to open
Opening the show will be Mount Pleasant-based Ballet Evolution performing “Why Are Walls,” a work choreographed by artistic director Jonathan Tabbert and set to Edvard Grieg’s String Quartet No. 1, which will be performed live by members of Chamber Music Charleston, and to the (pre-recorded) spoken poetry of Marcus Amaker, Charleston’s poet laureate.
“His stuff is very inspiring, so it was easy to create (the ballet) with that as the background,” Tabbert said.
This will be the Gaillard Center debut for Ballet Evolution and Chamber Music Charleston. The piece features six professional dancers (Andres Neira, Sarah Bowdoin, Natasha Nast, Haley-Jean Race, Chelsea Robicheau, Crystal Wellman), a bare stage, and shadow boxes that illuminate Amaker’s words.
Though clearly within the neoclassical-contemporary ballet tradition, the piece has a bit more grit than usual, reflecting poetry that explores personal and social norms and seeks to break boundaries, Tabbert said.
“It was so much fun creating this work just due to such good source material,” he said.