WORDS Joseph E. Morgan
On April 20 and 21, Nashville Ballet is going on tour. They will be bringing Paul Vasterling’s epic realization of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana to debut at the new Charleston Gaillard Center. “Designed in the tradition of Europe’s great performance halls” and finished in 2015, the Gaillard (pronounced Gill-yard) Center’s purpose is to “ . . . enrich the diverse community of Charleston with artistic and cultural experiences that are accessible and unique.” As we saw as recently as April of 2016 here in Nashville, Carmina Burana is that and more.
Orff’s work is a “scenic cantata” based on secular medieval poems from as early as the 11th century and organized around the central concept of the turning “Fortuna Wheel” (Fortune’s wheel). The Wheel, which may turn during individual numbers or between them, tends to shift the emotional and dramatic content to the exact opposite—joy turns to dismay, hope turns to bitter grief. To this, Orff set a score that reflects the rhythmic drive, motivic clarity, and fetishization of ritual that mark the music of the neoclassical 20th century, but he planned the piece to be more than a musical composition.In Orff’s conception, the work was to portray the ideals of Theatrum Mundi that would merge masks, costume, set design, acting, and danced choreography, each forming essential pieces of an autonomous whole in which, as Orff expert John Babcock writes, “every musical movement was to be connected with an action onstage.” The echo of Richard Wagner’s ideal of Gesamtkunstwerk is important here; Orff was writing for Nazi-era Frankfurt and the connection would have nationalist implications. This is where Vasterling’s choreography is remarkable, in its epic realization of Orff’s ideal.
The production, which was first premiered in Nashville in 2009 and taken to St. Louis in 2013, embraces much of Orff’s fantasy. Here the production featured nearly 300 members with percussion and pianos spilling out of the pit and onto the actual stage. In Charleston, the forces will be nearly as strong featuring 150 singers from the Charleston Symphony Chorus, 60-plus musicians from the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, and three guest vocalists, alongside 28 dancers from Nashville Ballet. The central visual element is the anthropomorphized Fortune, whose servants spin around her in a wheel of beautiful moments of spectacle, grandeur, gravitas, and reverence.