It isn’t every classical cantata that begins with three girls hanging on giant wooden crosses above the stage. But with medieval Latin texts about drinking and desire, and a score that has captured popular culture from the Nazis to the Patriots, Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” isn’t your average cantata. This weekend, Tacoma City Ballet will remount a production in the Pantages Theater that unites everything Orff originally wanted for this work: orchestra, choirs, soloists, dancers and visual drama.
“I find it interesting that Orff never intended ‘Carmina’ to be performed without dancers,” says ballet director Erin Ceragioli, who first choreographed the piece in 1993. “He created this magic tableau, and he wanted this to impersonate, to personify the music. … It’s such a powerful piece of music, and it’s beautiful.”
Carl Orff created this magic tableau, and he wanted (dance) to impersonate, to personify the music.” –
Erin Ceragioli, Tacoma City Ballet
A German composer who lived through both world wars and died in 1982, Orff wrote other works, but is most remembered for two things: “Carmina Burana,” and a system of music education uniting music, language and movement that is still one of the most widely used today. In 1935 he discovered a set of medieval poems and songs that had been found in a Bavarian abbey in 1803 and edited in 1847. Scholars argue about who wrote the “Carmina” manuscript — wandering students, defrocked monks — but the poems and songs written in Latin and a kind of medieval German are quite direct about their topics: love, lust, ribald drinking, chasing girls and the pleasures of spring. There’s an aria sung by a swan slowly roasting over a spit, a song by an abbot in charge of a tavern. Orff sets the texts to music that combines a medieval feel with quasi-Stravinsky rhythms, dissonances and timbres.
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“O Fortuna” has been used in 12 films, over 20 TV shows, five commercials and for five major U.S. sporting teams
The most famous, though, is the opening song “O Fortuna.” Drums pounding relentlessly on the downbeat, chorus singing a text about humans bending under Fortune’s wheel in loud dissonances or hushed, anxious repeating notes, “O Fortuna” has been used in dozens of films, commercials, sporting matches and video games to symbolize power and fear. If you don’t know the name, you will probably recognize the music instantly.
“Carmina” was also hugely popular after its 1937 premiere with the Nazi regime, personifying the pagan power it espoused. While Orff’s record wasn’t pristine, he was later officially cleared of Nazi association.
In 1993, Ceragioli set the whole thing to neo-Classical choreography, picking out key characters in the texts and assigning them different colors in minimalist costumes. There’s the initial trio of goddesses — Fate in black, Love in red and Purity in white — who wreathe in and out of the humans (dressed in black) in the opening scene. Seen from above, as in the Pantages balcony, the dancers form the shape of Fortune’s wheel, making stark dramatic gestures as a colored wheel (made from gel) shines behind them. Three huge crosses, each with a ballerina on top, lower horizontally, symbolic of death and fate.
Lighting also plays a dramatic role, as does the chorus, a sea of faces ranged at the back of the stage behind a scrim. At the premiere, a review in The News Tribune described the entire effect as “striking … pretty portentous stuff.”
Later, other characters appear for other songs: the goddess of Nature in green for the spring songs, an abbot in a robe, a black swan who contorts with arched back between two tavern girls as the tenor soloist sings Orff’s agonizingly high melody about being slowly roasted to death.
“The music has this kind of twisted quality to it,” says Geoffrey Boers, who is both preparing the Tacoma Symphony Chorus and singing the swan solo. “You can hear almost like it’s crying or screaming one last gasp before it’s cooked in the oven. It makes you squirm.’
Boers was also in the Pantages balcony for the Tacoma City Ballet premiere.
“It really goes well,” he says. “The text is so pictorial, the music is so pictorial that it makes so much sense to have a visual component go with it.”
At the end of the ballet, the crosses return — but this time they’re vertical and draped with bright colors to symbolize hope and the triumph of free will over fate, Ceragioli says.
‘Carmina’ has that goosebump factor. It gives you that feeling. And I think that’s why it’s so popular.” -
Erin Ceragioli, Tacoma City Ballet
Tacoma City Ballet has mounted the production three times after the 1993 premiere. But for both company and audience, this version will be the most expansive, with 40 dancers, two choirs (Tacoma Symphony Chorus and Vivace treble choir), soloists and — for the first time — an orchestra, slightly reduced from Orff’s original to fit into the Pantages pit.
“The very first time we did the ballet in the Pantages Theater it was the only standing ovation I have ever seen in that theater, for the ballet,” Ceragioli remembers. “When I came out on stage I saw the audience rise from the pit clear up to the top, and the house was full. It was amazing. … (‘Carmina’ has) that goosebump factor. It gives you that feeling. And I think that’s why it’s so popular.”