Dallas — There is seldom much to be meted out in terms of criticism when it comes to Carmina Burana. Carl Orff’s scenic cantata is a true crowd-pleaser, opening with the famously familiar tutti O, Fortuna, with its pounding timpani, crushingly huge chords, and rousing crescendo. It is a large piece with several moving parts, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, in collaboration with the Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas, proved last night to be up to the task.
For opening night of the production, the Meyerson Symphony Center was nearly full. Conductor Brett Mitchell offers them a solid interpretation, filled with forward energy and thoughtful sensitivity.
It is a fascinating cycle, based on medieval poetry from the 13th century written in a mixture of Latin, German, and other languages. First discovered in a Benedictine monastery, it’s interesting to consider, given the almost irreverent, secular nature of many of the movements. Composed in the 1930s, it is Orff’s most well-known and frequently performed piece, perfectly blending ancient themes with a powerfully modern soundscape.
The piece is divided into three sections: “Primo Vere (In Springtime),” a pastoral suite, “In Taberna (In the Tavern),” a rousing and boisterous bacchanal, and “Cour D’Amours (The Court of Love),” a collection of romantic songs. Throughout the cycle, there is rich variation in terms of tone, energy, and style that effectively portrays an abstract narrative—one that can be custom-fitted to the needs of each individual’s interpretive tendencies.
Joining the ensembles for this massive work are soloists Stephen Powell (baritone), Cyndia Sieden (soprano), and Nicholas Phan (tenor). Much of the solo work is performed by our baritone. Powell lends thoughtful interpretations to each of his characters, from the hilariously drunken abbot of Cockaigne in “Ego sum abbas,” to the heroically lovesick man in “Circa mea pectora.” His tone is rich and well-blended, perfectly bright where appropriate and deeply introspective when needed. Phan’s roasted swan is a true treat to watch, as he gives his singular role a pleasant pinch of absurdity in tone and in stage presence. Sieden is a sweet foil to the rest of the group, with a light sound that, unfortunately, is sometimes lost beneath the orchestra. Nevertheless, she does well to ring beautifully through the wrenching “Dulcissime” as the work approaches its end.
Kudos for the evening definitely go to the choruses. The DSO choir carries a heavy burden with this piece, but they deliver expertly balanced passages with full lines and near-perfect diction. Director Joshua Habermann has nicely pepared the large group for Mitchell’s expressive and nuanced interpretations. The Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas, under the direction of Cynthia Nott, is especially impressive, as they provide the perfect complement of light and air to the heavy, percussive piece.
As appetizers to the main event, the DSO also performed Chistopher Theofanidis’ Rainbow Body and Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture, Op. 40. Together, the two pieces filled roughly 30 minutes with a unique mixture of sound and story-telling. Theonfanidis, a Dallas native, starts his piece with a Gregorian-like chant inspired by poetry written around the same time as Carmina Burana. The piece goes smoothly through movements that are bright and pastoral to dark and mysterious. Elgar’s Op. 40 is adventurous and provincial, with a lovely accompaniment from James Diaz on organ that gives the piece a full and resounding finish.
These were great teasers to the main course, but what most in attendance came out to see was certainly the Orff, and understandably so. The DSO delivers this well-known favorite with artful precision. It’s difficult not to enjoy such an energetic cantata, especially when everyone around you is so thoroughly engaged.