The performance of Carmina Burana by Princeton Pro Musica at Richardson Hall on May 21 was more than a performance—it was a phenomenon. Enhanced by the brilliant dancing of the Roxey Ballet Co. skillfully integrated with the music, the clarity of sound created both by the chorus itself, and the outstanding acoustics and sound engineering of Richardson Hall, the production left me stunned and entranced.
Carmina Burana is perhaps the most popular secular cantata of all time and this, of course, creates a challenge for any company undertaking it. Composer Carl Orff intended this to be not only a musical but also a visual spectacle. The collection of 13th-century poems from which the lyrics are drawn celebrates the pleasures of the flesh and the lust of youth, and gives a backhanded slap to church hierarchy and conventional rectitude.
Unfortunately, the cantata is rarely performed as Orff envisioned it. Perhaps the best depiction of Orff’s vision is a film created for West German television in 1975, with the close co-operation of Orff, in honor of his 80th birthday. The various stories of young lust and gluttony are quite literally brought to life. The film was banned there for decades because of this almost literal interpretation of the texts to which Orff had put music.
The mixture of Christian and pagan imagery is exactly what the lyrics describe in this mixture of sacred and profane songs, but the Miss Grundys of the time couldn’t handle it. Some copies of the film were destroyed, but one survivor can be seen on YouTube.
By including the ballet, Director Ryan James Brandau returned to Orff’s true vision of how this work should be staged, and the Roxey Ballet’s sensual, wonderfully costumed and highly skilled performance gave life to the vision. Special mention should be made of those dancers who performed solo or in pas de deux, as they were a particular joy to behold. I have heard Carmina Burana performed by larger choruses with full orchestras and in larger halls, including the London Proms at Royal Albert, and they were very good—very good indeed—but not as good as this Pro Musica production, lacking as they did this essential visual quality brought by the ballet.
The 96-voice chorus is a powerful instrument, perfectly rehearsed and performing with a precision and clarity that was absolutely meticulous. Every element of the music, whether it was a majestic chorus or the slightest tinkling of a bell or castanet, had the same perfect rendition. Laura Kosar (soprano), Ryland Angel (tenor), and Will Berman (baritone) were the soloists and all three enhanced the production greatly. Ryland Angel’s acting was especially appropriate to his material. Will Berman was in excellent voice and Laura Kosar’s clear and perfect soprano voice was yet another joy in this production.
Princeton Pro Musica’s 2017-18 season has been announced and includes such outstanding selections as the Brahms Requiem and Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. See princetonpromusica.org for more information.
The Roxey Ballet is based in Lambertville, N.J. Information regarding its performances can be found at roxeyballet.org.