Carmina Burana is a secular cantata based on a collection of Latin and Middle High German poems, believed to have been written by minstrels and defrocked monks in Bavaria in the 12th- and 13th Centuries. The poems are largely concerned with love and sex, but also touch on drinking, gambling, gluttony, and a variety of other sins. The cantata premiered in 1937 and quickly became a favorite worldwide.
The Cathedral Choral Society has performed Carmina Burana in concert on more than one occasion, but this performance was a bit different. This was primarily a ballet performance with live choral accompaniment. The ballet was choreographed and staged by Septime Webre, the artistic director of the Washington Ballet. The staging was pretty cool; the chorus was on scaffolding on the sides and at the back of the stage. I was on the first level rear, seven feet above the stage. So I had a great view of the whole thing, except when I was reading my score or watching the conductor.
This ballet touched on all the various sins mentioned above, but concentrates on the parts about love and sex. Fun! And occasionally dirty. There was this one section … mmm. Flesh-colored body suits, lots of writhing. The first time I saw it, I spaced out so thoroughly that I completely missed the next entrance.
The naughty bits are performed by the same pair of dancers throughout. I call them Blanziflor and Helena, who are mentioned in the penultimate movement of the work. And they’re excellent together. They have amazing chemistry together; watching them, you genuine believe that they’re deeply, desperately in love with one another. It’s really something to see. And something very worth seeing, because Helena is a hottie. Mmm.
Um, Where was I? Oh yeah. The other two lead dancers in this production of Carmina Burana are named (in the same since that Blanziflor and Helena are named Blanziflor and Helena) Jason and Moon Lady. Jason is named for the dancer who performs that role; Moon Lady is so named because she first appears 20-some feet above the stage strapped into a huge metal cylinder, and since the fourth word of the piece is luna I assumed at first that the cylinder was the moon. It wasn’t, but the name stuck. Jason represents the quest for ideal love, represented by Moon Lady.
Moon Lady doesn’t have much too do in the ballet other than stand around looking ethereally pretty. Jason, on the other hand, is an incredibly demanding role, requiring both strong athletic skills – the choreography incorporates a lot of jumps and tumbling – and equally strong interpretive skills. Jason, you see, is quite the tortured soul, having glimpsed his ideal love and having devoted his life to pursuing her, and the dancer must be able to convey that plangent longing.
The dancers portraying Jason, Blanziflor, and Helena are key to the success of the production. Of course, the other dancers, and the chorus and soloists, are important too, but if Jason, Blanziflor, and Helena can’t pull their weight, the whole thing would suffer. I can say this with some confidence, because the Saturday matinee featured different dancers in those three roles, and that one performance was pretty mediocre.
It’s not that the matinee dancers were bad dancers; all three of them were part of the main cast, and were very good in those roles. Deutero-Helena, in particular, has a spotlight dance in her regular role that is simply riveting. She’s really good at expressing exuberance and joy through dance, but she just didn’t have the capacity to convey the depths of passion necessary to play Helena successfully. But she was a real pleasure to watch in her regular role, and luckily I didn’t have to sing during her part, so I could watch.
So the Saturday matinee was not quite what it could have been. Of course, the main cast could not possibly have performed two shows in one day, and to be fair the chorus didn’t do that well during the matinee either. We didn’t stink up the joint or anything like that, but it was by far our weakest performance, and that includes the dress rehearsal.
But the Saturday night performance more than made up for it. We were great. The chorus and the soloists were tight, and the dancers were in top form, Jason particularly. It was an amazing thing to watch. We wrapped this afternoon with another matinee, but with the main cast. It went very well, I think, if not quite as good as Saturday night. Septime seemed pleased, at any rate.
So now it’s back to the Baroque for the CCS. Well, most of the CCS. I’m not doing the Baroque concert, so I’ve got the next two weeks off. Yay!