Sunday, 18 January 2009

Oh to be in London during Carmina Burana – or not! A review

It’s not often that "Carmina Burana" is performed professionally in Europe and last weekend was the chance for British audiences to see a rare staging.

Franz Abraham’s self-proclaimed “Carmina Burana Monumental Opera” swept in from Berlin to make a made a two-day stopover at the O2 Arena in London.

But as anybody knows, not all monuments are in fine fettle and this production was one that rather resembled an infrequently visited, but much-touted ruin.

If you need proof of how seldom Carl Orff’s classic can be seen this side of the Pond, grab a copy of “Musique & Opéra autour du monde” – the handbook and bible for opera and classical music fans worldwide. The 08-09 season has precisely zero performances listed.

I know because every year when it thumps through the letterbox, I scour the pages looking for somewhere close at hand where I might be able to see and hear the work performed.

So there was an appropriate tremor that struck the house when the email popped up from O2 last year autumn informing me of the weekend spectacle.

I was straight on the blower, booked tickets – performance and train, reserved the hotel and pulled out the well-scratched LPs (for those who are too young those would be the pre-pre-cursor of the CD, almost back in Ye Olde days just after electricity had been discovered) and wallowed in anticipation.

Now this is not going to be a critical analysis of Orff’s piece, written in the 1930s and first performed by the Frankfurt Opera in June 1937.

For an understanding of the history behind the music, score, interpretations and where it stands in the great scheme of things – there are plenty of other sources.

This is a simple and very personal review.

“Lose yourself in some gorgeous music with a spectacular show at The O2, London” is what we were promised in a production “performed by the world-renowned Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, with the Brighton Festival Chorus and Youth Choir.

First up then a prelude to the main act was 40 minutes of Verdi’s “Greatest Hits”.

After all what better way to warm up for Orff than the Italian genius – other perhaps than Wagner?

Ah yes and apropos of “warm up” maybe now is the best time to mention something of the O2 arena’s suitability as a classical venue.

Because throughout Verdi and the main feature of "Carmina Burana", the air conditioning in the place seemed to be turned up to maximum.

That might in fact be a (more than) welcome feature when the temperature rises during a heaving rock ‘n pop show from the likes of Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, Coldplay or Boyzone – all of whom are scheduled to perform there in the coming months.

But for a classical music concert, when everyone remains seated, the continuous blast of cold air was far from necessary and left huge swathes of the audience in their coats, scarves and even gloves for the duration.

Back to Verdi though, although once again maybe the production should think about trying Wagner in the future –because there were a few problems with what was on offer.

Oh yes it was strong stuff, and popular – but the volume levels were just too much for the sound engineers at the O2 obviously, and not enough checks seem to have been made during rehearsals.

Hence, although there was a fair amount of head-bobbing and audible humming from the audience during “Va pensiero” (Nabucco) and “Gloria all Egitto” (Aida), the pleasure was rather ruined by the distortion as the microphoned singers in the chorus reached their climax.

Any notion that the ears would be relieved from the hissing of the loudspeakers during the high and mighty notes of Verdi as the interval was announced, was soon dispelled as the air-conditioning hummed its way into reanimated urgency.

What’s clear about the O2 arena is that it appears to offer all the comfort of an outdoor one with none of the atmosphere of say the Arena di Verona.

Of course it would be more than a little unfair to compare it to any of the great opera houses, although once again, the producers had said of the venue “Why should rock and pop fans have all the fun? Classical fans will love the excitement of this big, explosive gig”

Quite frankly they got it wrong. It’s not suited to holding such an event.

On to the main act though, and that promised “explosive gig”.

Anyone familiar with the work will know it’s a grand, thumping powerful piece. And that’s very much how it started – with a lot of glitz thrown in.

This production, which was first performed in Munich in 1995 and has been lumbering its way around the globe ever since, bills itself as “Carmina Burana Monumental Opera”.

In the programme we’re told that “Mihail Tchernaev’s magnificent stage architecture with its fascinating light projections and enchanting fire effects creates a unique scenery for this spectacle with 30 dancers in 300 different costumes, with choir big orchestra and soloists.”

And therein lie many of the production’s failings

It is from start to finish all very “Las Vegas”. There are fireworks, flames, glitter – in fact all the paraphernalia on which the production prides itself. It’s gloriously – or perhaps not quite so gloriously – over the top.

Oh yes and there are those costume changes – so many of them and seemingly necessitating constant breaks in the action.

Granted that when Orff wrote the piece he insisted that there was no plot – believable or otherwise – in the conventional operatic sense, and that instead there would be a series of vignettes represented musically and dramatically.

Much of the time during the performance it was quite impossible to see what link could be drawn between what was happening on stage as the dancers rather heavily bounced about, and the wonderful music and song booming from the orchestra pit and choir stall.

The choreography was, to put it kindly, rather pedestrian and it added nothing extra to the music other than an often unwelcome, visual distraction.

Just one example which pretty well serves for much of the one hour and 20 minutes was a scene towards the end when one of the dancers was “acting” out the role and miming the lyrics, while the guest tenor (in this case Michal Pavel Vojta) belted out the aria from the side of the stage.

The two just seemed to work independently (well at least the tenor “worked”; the dancing was just something for the eyes to focus on) and so it continued.

The sad fact was that the music and dance seemed so often to run parallel to one another rather than being complementary and in fact the best way to really appreciate what was going on would probably have been to have closed your eyes and just listened.

The reception afforded by the audience at the O2 was polite but lacklustre applause – reflected in the hurry in which many appeared to be to leave the venue – but that could also have been in a desperate attempt to beat the rush to the nearest tube station and make their way back into the night.

Should after all this, you still wish to catch the show, the next staging will be in Qatar at the beginning of March and then a month later it’ll switch continents yet again for open air performances in Brazil and Paraguay before moving on to Chile and Peru.

Europeans will next be able to catch it in Vilnius, Lithuania in June.

Let’s just hope that the acoustics have been sorted by then.

Alternatively you could go out and buy a CD – try the 1979 recording by Riccardo Muti with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus along with solosists Arleen Auger, John van Kesteren and Jonathan Summers.

Turn the volume up to maximum, sit back and relax and get ready for blast off in the comfort of your own sitting room.

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