Back Bay Chorale closes with a chamber-sized “Carmina Burana”

May 12, 2013 at 2:57 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Scott Allen Jarrett led the Back Bay Chorale in Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” Saturday night.

“Oh! Oh! I am bursting all over!
Now for the love of a virgin
I burn all through!”

These sultry lines are not from Fifty Shades of Grey. They are found in one of the most memorable works in the music repertoire, Carmina Burana, the focus of the Back Bay Chorale’s season finale at Sanders Theatre Saturday night.

Carl Orff’s dramatic cantata of 1936 celebrates the hedonistic pleasures of life. Its texts, drawn from Latin, German, and French songs of the Goliards (medieval students in training for the clergy), exult fortune, drinking, gambling, and sex. Live life to the fullest is the work’s undying theme.

The simple structure and accessible music make these guilty pleasures all the more palatable. Orff combines chant-like melodies, operatic arias, sharp rhythms, and punchy instrumentation into a sumptuous collage.

Despite the work’s widespread success, Orff probably couldn’t have imagined that Carmina Burana would grow into a cultural meme for fate and calamity. The opening chorus, “O Fortuna,” alone has been widely used as a soundtrack, underscoring King Arthur and his knights riding into battle in Excalibur as in less elevated pop-culture manifestations.

From the opening chords of “O Fortuna” Saturday night, the Back Bay Chorale bristled with full blend and crisp diction. Conductor Scott Allen Jarrett kept the tempo steady, opening the throttle for the rousing final stanza.

An ensemble of two pianos and percussion–timpani, glockenspiel, chimes, snare drum, cymbals, and castanets–provided a sparkling effect to the score, a marked difference from the fully orchestrated version. This sparse accompaniment lays more of the dramatic burden on the chorus. And the Back Bay Chorale didn’t disappoint, maintaining clarity and solid pitch in the work’s many unison parts. Sopranos and altos sang with seductive blend in “Chramer, gib die verwe mir.” Tenors and basses provided power to the erotic strains of “Si puer cum puellula.” The children of the Boston City Singers added a clean, clear sound in “Amor volat undique.”

Orff intended a visual element to accompany Carmina Burana. And a strong cast of soloists brought a touch of spectacle to the performance. Slouched in a seat in the mezzanine, tenor Patrick Waters, with spring-water clarity, performed the humorous swan song, gesturing to those seated nearby as he lamented his character’s body roasting on a spit. His double role as a rogue audience member was made clear when an usher removed him from the hall to light laughter.

Baritone Graham Fandrei began his winding ode to springtime, “Omnia sol temperat,” from the choir’s back row. His voice grew richer and fuller as he slowly made his way upstage. He stammered effectively through the drunken lines as the Abbot of Cockaigne, staggering onstage in the process. He hit his stride with the sorrowful aria “Dies, nox et omnia,” where he put across the colorful, free-flowing lines with grace.

Soprano Melinda Whittington, with elegant presence and pearly tone, offered a touching “In truitina” and a full-bodied “Dulcissime.”

Whittington and Fandrei, holding hands and smiling to each other as they performed “Tempus est iocundum,” seemed, at first, an odd fit for a scene detailing the couples’ orgasmic lovemaking. But their flirtatious glances and subtle body language provided enough subtext.

Flaws were small, few, and far between. The Chorale did not render the German text in “Floret silva nobilis” with the same crisp diction they performed the Latin verses. And the instrumentalists nearly drowned out the tenors and basses at the conclusion of the tongue-twister ode to the bottle, “In taberna quando sumus.” Fandrei’s high notes in “Estuans interius” came off a little strained. And on occasion, Whittington’s wide vibrato was a little distracting, and her voice didn’t always blend with the instrumentation.

For details about Back Bay Chorale’s 2013-2014 season, go to backbaychorale.org.

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