The BSO’s Carmina burana, the Cantata Singers, the Boston Camerata, and BLO’s Tales of Hoffmann
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  November 13, 2008

COIN OPERATED GIRL: Olympia (Georgia Jarman, soprano) sings the famous "Doll Song" to woo Hoffman (Gerard Powers, tenor) in the Boston Lyric Opera's production of Jacques Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffman (Les contes d'Hoffman), through November 18 at the Shubert Theatre in Boston.

A guy comes into a bar with his dog and tells the bartender that the dog can talk. “Ask him something,” the guy says. “OK,” the bartender says. “What do you call the outside of a tree?” “Bark!” the dog responds. The bartender remains dubious. “Ask something else,” the guy says. “OK, what’s on the top of a house?” “Roof!” the dog says. The bartender isn’t convinced. “Ask a harder question,” the guy insists. “OK,” the bartender says, “who’s the greatest composer of the 20th century?” The dog responds with an enthusiastic “Orff!” The bartender is fed up and throws them out. But as they’re leaving, the dog turns to the bartender and says: “You think it’s Hindemith?”

Probably most music lovers wouldn’t head their greatest-composer list with Carl Orff, despite the popularity of his violent, garish, sumptuously tuneful Carmina burana. The Boston Symphony Orchestra had the inspired idea of having the preeminent medieval-music specialists Ben Bagby’s Sequentia precede the Orff with a group of piercing and satirical 13th-century settings of the same poems: lamenting bad luck and the pains of love, celebrating pleasure, and mocking greed and corruption. The lines about “the blowhard becoming a statesman” and “the donkey being crowned” got knowing laughs. Besides Bagby, who also accompanied several songs on the harp, the eloquent singers were Eric Mentzel, Wolodymyr Smishkewych, and Boston’s Paul Guttry, William Hite, and Frank Kelley. Their subtle intimacy filled Symphony Hall.

Carmina burana means something like “Bavarian songs” — since this remarkable poetry manuscript was found in a monastery near Munich. The original melodies weren’t discovered until the 1950s, and so were quite unknown to Orff, who completed his cantata in 1936, in Germany (where he remained). More bombastic and simplistic than its refined medieval counterparts, it’s a kind of bloated combination of Stravinsky and Puccini, vigorous rhythms and sentimental melodies. Guest-conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos recorded it in 1965 and led it at Tanglewood in 2001; he knows it well. But he emphasized its least medieval qualities — wallowing in instrumental color and pounding rhythms, choosing ponderousness and languor over fleetness and spirited orgiastic fun. It worked, but much of it sounded more like a soundtrack for a horror movie (flutist Elizabeth Rowe’s pastoral duet with timpanist Timothy Genis was a delightful exception). The spirited old Herbert Kegel DG recording suggests Orff’s greater musical sophistication.

German baritone Christian Gerhaher’s characterful coppery timbre got increasingly harder to hear over the heavier orchestration. Glamorous, warm-toned French soprano Norah Amsellem had more success in her normal range than in her wobbly reaching for high D. William Ferguson was the high-flying tenor. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus was heroic and the PALS Children’s Chorus added some uncloying sweetness. English translations were projected, but several people afterward echoed my own regret that the program book had no texts. If you looked away for a second, the words were irretrievable. I hope this isn’t a new cost-cutting policy.

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