Monday, November 17, 2014

Music Monday: Carmina Burana

I mentioned a couple of days ago that I was pumped for the Carmina Burana performance we were going to see. Well, it happened, and it was awesome!

It was put on by Sweden's Folkoperan, and included a dramatic/performance art element in addition to the music. I knew it was going to be more than just straight music, but I wasn't quite sure what to expect.

JV has always been a fan of Folkoperan. Their motto is "opera for all" and this seems to be a dual goal: affordable opera and intellectually accessible opera. This is in contrast to the Royal Opera, which is, you know....standard fancy shit. They perform in minimal costume (as in basic, not as in showing skin) and with bare bones set design, which I suppose is an aesthetic choice as well as an economic one. He's seen four or five other shows they've put on, including Don Giovanni.

For me, however, this was my first Folkoperan performance.

I should also say that Carmina Burana is especially important to me because it was one of a whole collection JV mailed me (physically mailed me!!) on a burned CD-rom when we had first gotten to know each other. He sent a whole shitload of Elvis Costello albums, some Cake, Dilated Peoples, Corporate Avenger, Apoptygma Bezerk, and Carmina Burana. That was the first I had ever heard the entire set—before that I only know, like everyone does, O Fortuna—and I've always associated Carmina Burana with JV because of that. So going in it was going to be a more ~emotional~ experience for me than most other people, maybe.

Anyway, the details of the performance itself:

The project for this began development in 2012. ~They~ (the conductor, I assume, at the least, but who knows who else designed the show) wanted to incorporate dramatic set pieces, I guess you could say, along with the music, and so they began asking people questions: what is your greatest love experience? and what is your greatest tragedy? They didn't ask just anyone, however; they decided to ask people aged 80 or older so that there would be a wealth of lived experiences, and they decided to ask women because the author(s) of the original Carmina Burana had been men. Equity! Folkoperan released a whole video about the dramatic and artistic decisions they made. For my Swedish readers, here it is:

You can also read more (in Swedish, but Google translate is your friend) about the artistic background and intention with this project on Folkoperan's official webpage.

Eventually they worked it down to a handful of women (not professional actresses so far as I can tell, but the actual people whose stories these were?). There were about six at our performance, but apparently there were two more women who had been involved with the project who had since passed away, one of them just a few weeks ago. The concert opened with six plain white chairs in front of the curtain. The women walked on (in just regular "old Swedish lady" clothes), took their seats, and then stood and told their stories (greatest experience in love, and greatest tragedy) at random. They were all pretty sad, as you can imagine, and bittersweet at best. One woman talked about how she could never have a close relationship with her mother. More than one talked about husbands who had left them. Another said she had decided to tell someone else's story, the woman who had died just a few weeks ago, instead of her own: how her own tragedy was outliving her husband.

This was all in Swedish so I'm fuzzy on some of the finer details of some, but I could follow enough to be entertained and not be entirely perplexed.

The last story was about a woman who had been in love with a boy since she was 9 (and he was 15). The boy had loved her back (not in any sexy way), but had grown and married another woman and had two daughters with her. His wife died young and so he married his childhood sweetheart, the woman on stage, two years later, which was sweet, but then eventually he left her for another woman. They divorced and he took the stepkids with him to his new wife. He also took some of their shared possessions—"yes, even the television~"

And right at the end of that story, after she had said, "yes, even the television" the music started and there is nothing for a lol like someone lamenting the loss of a television only to be followed by the opening bars of O Fortuna. A+ art direction, Folkoperan.

For the first few songs, the women remained on stage in their chairs, though moved from facing the audience to facing inwards, towards center stage, with periodic commentary (most often in the form of someone repeating one of the lines in the lyrics in Swedish). At one point one of the women got up and gave everyone else roses and floral crowns. After receiving floral crowns, the women left the stage and the Jumbotron cut to an obviously pretaped video of them in the same clothes and the same floral crowns going shopping in the ICA supermarket down the way (before the Jumbotron was, as usual, a zoomed-in live feed); behind the stage there was another video of older women (maybe the same women?) in black body suits doing some kind of interpretative dance slowed way the fuck down, as well as a Swedish translation of all the Latin text.

Yeah, for a company that's dedicated to simple, barebones "opera for all," it got a little technically involved.

Anyway, the women all went out shopping, which lasted for maybe three or four selections, and then they "came back" on stage with ICA bags. While they were rolling the shopping video clip, a long white table had been brought out and the chairs were placed around it. There was also a small fake little living room, with an upholstered overstuffed chair and a floor lamp stage right.

The Jumbotron video cut back to its live feed of the stage (instead of the grocery store shopping spree) and for the remaining selections the women carried out a great pantomime feast in front of the choir and orchestra.

To give you the basic gist of it.
Bonus points for sexy baritone soloist standing on the table and taking off his shirt while the women fawned over him. (The above photo is not from the performance I attended; our baritone was much younger and better-looking than the guy on the far right here.)

Other snippets included an ensemble of female dancers and one of the women wielding a small chainsaw on stage (just revving the engine, not actually destroying anything). At one point there was a third video feed, just a little camcorder on stage, that the soprano soloist and then one of the women carried around and stared into the whole time (the old woman set it down and used it as a mirror to apply some lipstick). Then, for the end, the women were escorted offstage with masses and masses of glitter and the dance ensemble, the children's choir, and the soloists waving goodbye to them, then waving goodbye to the audience.

And that was what happened, in a nutshell. In addition to the music itself. It sounds weird in the telling of it (and it was weird in the watching of it) but the introductory monologues and the ongoing dramatic...I don't know, tableaux, I guess?...didn't detract from the music in any way. Orff originally envisioned the piece as something a little more than just a musical cantata, after all; I just don't know if he envisioned something quite so surreal.

Did the dramatics augment the musical performance? Tough call. Some people might find it distracting, I guess. On the other hand, I can see how having something visual going on could actually help people stay focused on the music more: it does keep your attention from wandering off the performance entirely. And with the Jumbotron, the video backdrop with the lyrics, the tableaux up front, or the "selfie" live feed from the camcorder on stage for a while, there was always something to watch. The monologues, however, were a solid net positive for me. They complemented the thematic elements of Carmina Burana quite well (both in terms of the Latin text and the musical elements). It made for a nice "warm-up" or introduction to the music. (I think if I were directing things I would have staged the monologues throughout the performance as thematically appropriate, but hey, that's just me.)

The musical performance was excellent. Folkoperan is no less talented than the Royal Opera despite their "opera for all" credo, so it's not like they're second-rate bums because us plebes can't afford the good shit. There were no interpretive weirdnesses, which is to say it "matched well" with that recording I have from JV (the London Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta, with Sumi Jo (S), Jochen Kowalski (A), and Boje Skovhus (B)).

The one significant departure was over what my choral nerd friend Bov called "that goddamned goose part." In the recording I have (and the only version I've listened to straight through), that particular tenor solo ("Olim lacus colueram") is performed "straight," as it were. It's sung well and technically correct. But apparently it's a viable artistic option to intentionally break your voice on that part to convey the pain and suffering of the swan, as it's quite literally being roasted alive. Folkoperan went with the voice-breaking interpretation, which is a bold choice and one that can take you out of the experience if you don't know any better. Which I didn't. (But now I do!)

The instrumentation of this performance was also a bit different than what I'm accustomed to: it sounded heavier on strings (especially viola (or maybe violin? or both?)) and lighter on woodwinds than I've heard before, either on that 1992 London Philharmonic recording or others I've found on the Internet.

I've seen my fair share of symphonic music performances. But I think this was the first time I went into a concert being extremely well-acquainted with the material, and that can really make all the difference. Or it could just be that Carmina Burana is music that punches you right in the face.

All in all, a brilliant project that was flawlessly executed. I hope they go international with this performance, it's absolutely stunning.

And as a reward for reading all those words, here's the official trailer:


  1. This sounds amazing! Even though I work in a theatre, this sounds unlike anything I've ever done or seen! I worked on an opera once, but it was more standard fancy shit type...also I didn't understand the language and I couldn't read the subtitles since I was backstage, hahah.

    I think it's so sweet that the show had more of an emotional impact on you, and you were finally able to go see it <3

    1. It was SO COOL! I mean I'm a fan of fancy shit too, haha, but this was nice for something different. But also very....memento mori, I guess. It made for an interesting discussion on the way home. But I'm glad I decided to spring for the tickets. <3