Layla the Majnun and Carmina Burana at Nashville Ballet

By Joseph E. Morgan

On the weekend of April 23, 2016, the Nashville Ballet presented Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and premiered a new commission, Richard Danielpour’s Layla & the Majnun. Both pieces were choreographed by Paul Vasterling in an evening of spectacle, beauty and exoticism.

The evening opened with Layla & the Majnun, an orchestral piece based on a narrative Danielpour culled from a fable whose origins can be traced back to an Arabic poem from the fifth century. It is a virgin love story in which two lovers are prevented from being together as a result of their father’s disapproval. In this piece, Danielpour’s music portrays a stylized exoticism appropriate to the overall subject. It engages the tale’s history as an ancient artifact of a distant culture, but has, at points, a difficult time taking into account the immediacy of the onstage drama or personalizing the emotions of the individual characters. Director Paul Vasterling’s choreography is quite robust, especially in the second movement’s duet of separation. The increasing frustration that the young lovers experience across the scene, portrayed wonderfully by Kayla Rowser as Layla and Brett Sjoblom as Quays (the Majnun), creates a potent tension that soon leads the Majnun to madness. For the final movement, in which the Majnun transcends his own desire and madness, Danielpour’s inspired setting of Rumi made for a powerful ending sung warmly by soprano Julie Cox:

I’m not of this world, which was made of soil.

I am trapped in this worldly cage for only a few days.

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Carmina Burana is a collection of poems written across the 11th and 13th centuries that are remarkably secular, belying the modern perception of the medieval person as constantly pious and unremittingly religious. The topic of the songs entertain the much more worldly subjects of gambling, drinking and womanizing, all framed by the opening song’s lament to the fickleness of fortune. Carl Orff’s score, famously, carries on the tradition of Stravinsky’s violent rhythmic primitivism, but synthesized with a giant romantic orchestra dedicated to Orff’s sense of spectacle, grandeur and gravitas.  In Vasterling’s epic production, which was first premiered in Nashville in 2009 and taken to St. Louis in 2013, the Nashville Ballet has embraced all of Orff’s fantasy. This production is made up of nearly 300 members, a full onstage choir, a children’s choir and the complete Nashville Symphony with percussion and pianos spilling out of the pit and onto the actual stage.

For the opening movement “O Fortuna,” Vasterling began with a powerful visual of an anthropomorphized Fortune, played by a divine yet severe Julie Eisen at the center of a whirling wheel as dancers circle around, subjects to her cold whim. Indeed, Eric Harris’ costume and visual elements are an amazing innovation, both for their shape and their role as canvas for projected images.

The vocalists, Julie Cox, (Soprano), Mark Whateley (Baritone) and Tim Waurick (Tenor) were all excellent. Waurick’s tenor falsetto, pushed to Orff’s incredible heights, was particularly amazing.  Similarly, all of the dancing soloists were marvelous. Mollie Sanson’s Cupid as well as the final Pas de Deux with Kayla Rowser and Jon Upleger both deserve mention.

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In the end, the juxtaposition of the two pieces and consideration of their context is quite interesting. Orff composed Carmina Burana in an era and society marked by extreme intolerance. Written in the late 1930s and premiered in Frankfurt, Germany, the Nazis soon embraced the timeless quality of Orff’s primitivism, despite (or alongside of) the rather shallow message in his music. The pomp of this music was certainly warmly received by the Nazi taste for intimidating grandeur. On the other hand, Danielpour’s musical exoticism reaches back to before the dark and troubled days of the late romantic, channeling instead the naïve idealism of the early-19th century. Yet, his work is composed and premiered in a 21st century society that is still debating what it considers to be the appropriate response to difference. Importantly, in an age when refugees are fleeing the Middle East by the millions, this production affords their culture a small measure of the dignity that they deserve, providing an alternative view than the one we are given each night in the news.

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