Sunday, May 28, 2000

Review: Carmina Burana

'Burana' gets unique, dramatic reading

        The exhilarating energy of Carl Orff's bawdy cantata, Carmina Burana, was matched only by the sold-out crowd's thunderous ovations at its conclusion, as the Cincinnati May Festival opened its second weekend Friday night.

        With James Conlon on the podium, small wonder that this was the most dramatic performance of Orff's popular work in recent memory. His was a unique reading, one of both tremendous sweep and detail, of power and a generous dose of humor. He conducted it like opera: it swaggered, it had dramatic pacing, and it was graced by a splendid cast of operatic soloists.

        The earthy rite of spring was the ideal showcase for the May Festival, which was taped Friday night for its television debut on PBS, on a date next season to be announced. It is being produced by Phil Byrd and the team that has put the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Pops on TV.

        With eight TV cameras positioned around Music Hall and a boom hanging over the stage, the chorus performed the lion's share of the program, and rose to the occasion superbly.

        The soloists in this electrifying Carmina Burana were baritone Richard Paul Fink, tenor Donald Kaasch and Korean-born opera diva Sumi Jo. The Cincinnati Boychoir, prepared by Randall Wolfe, performed with lightness and charm in “Love Flies Everywhere” in Part III.

        Mr. Fink projected a focused, Italianate baritone and was riveting for his swaggering personality, notably in the Abbot's song. Mr. Kaasch, who performed a simply beautiful preconcert recital, nearly stole the show with his performance as the Roasted Swan. He captured the weirdness of the piece, negotiating the tax ing falsetto perfectly while backing onto the stage, perching on a violinist's lap and getting into a scrap with Mr. Conlon.

        Sumi Jo, a ravishing coloratura soprano, soared with great beauty of phrasing and heart-stopping high notes.

        The chorus articulated the text, which extols the pleasures of wine, lust and spring, with exceptional energy, homogeneity and expressiveness. “O Fortuna” which frames the cantata, was powerful and taut. The ebullient “Ecce gratum” (Behold the welcome) was vigorous.

        The evening opened with the world premiere of Cincinnatus Psalm by Daniel Brewbaker, commissioned by the May Festival.

        Well-crafted and beautifully orchestrated, the setting of Psalm 145 displayed the composer's gift for melody as well as choral writing. It was tonal and engaging, grounded in tradition yet uniquely evocative. Portions were hymn like, performed with a reverent spirit; others more contrapuntal, with imitative passages tossed between male and female voices.

        The May Festival Chorus, prepared by Robert Porco, projected a luxuriant, smooth sound. The premiere was well-received by the audience of 3,309, and Mr. Brewbaker took a well-deserved bow.

        Bernstein's Chichester Psalms was the perfect mate. The stage was rearranged, with boy soprano James Danner, 9, backed by two harps in its center. The chorus had a vibrant presence from the first note, and Mr. Conlon kept an excellent balance between chorus and orchestra.

        Young Mr. Danner, a member of the Metropolitan Opera Children's Chorus, dispatched his solos with poise and a pure timbre. Among the memorable moments was a radiant solo by principal cellist Eric Kim.


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