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Lithuanian National Ballet

'Carmina Burana: profane Songs'

by Julija Kalpokienë

February 2003 -- Opera House, Vilnius

Ballet lovers had already started voicing their disappointment with the fact that the National Opera and Ballet Theatre had been staging only new operas for a second successive year. Therefore, the premi ère of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana stirred up quite a lot of excitement among professionals and their audiences.

Composition of the Century

It would be hard to deny that Orff’s cantata is one of the most popular musical compositions of the 20th century. You can hear it at theatres, on film soundtracks, and even on television advertisements. Yet, until the day he discovered the old manuscript, the 40-odd composer was relatively unknown in his native Munich.

Carmina Burana , which means “Songs of Beuern”, was discovered in the early 19th century at the abbey of Benedikt­beuern, and published in 1847.

The manuscript, containing 250 poems in medieval Latin, with Old German and Old French interpolations, dates back to the 13th century. The authors were mendicant friars, travelling students and minstrels, who indulged in debauchery and games rather than prayer or studies.

The poems deal with all the sides of human life: tears and laughter, politics, morality and satire, eroticism and love, drinking songs and hymns. And, of course, a hymn to Fortuna ( Fortuna imperatrix mundi ), with which Orff began and ended the cantata.

Out of the 250 poems, he selected only 23. Although some were originally accompanied by musical notation (called neums), he did not study or decipher them. He was mainly interested in the rhythm and expressiveness of the poems.

Orff aimed at “total theatre”, where music, text and movement would combine to create a whole. He looked for examples in two cultural traditions: classical Greek tragedy and Italian Baroque theatre.

Carmina Burana , which brought him overnight fame, was first performed in Frankfurt in 1937. The cantata was a great success and was quickly staged in many more theatres. After the première, Orff disowned all his previous works. He wrote to his publisher to destroy everything he had published until then, as in his view his musical work only began with Carmina Burana .

Prisoners of Fortuna

Carmina Burana is not only performed in its concert version; ballets or other dance performances can be staged to it.

Before the production at the National Opera, it had already been put on twice in this country. The first was as a ballet choreographed by Jurijus Smori­ginas at the Klaipëda Musical Theatre. The second was in 1991 when, choreographed by Royston Maldoom from Great Britain, it was danced by 120 performers from various dance companies from all over the country. It was put on in Independence Square, to mark Lithuania’s victory over the Soviets.

This time Carmina Burana is choreographed by Xin Peng Wang. It is the third time this artist from Germany has worked with the National Opera and Ballet Theatre.

In 2000 he staged two one-act ballets: Contrasts , to music by Prokofiev (no longer in the repertoire), and The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. The latter had previously been put on with other one-act ballets. Since the première, Carmina Burana has been combined with it.

Wang’s assistant is the Boston-based ballet dancer Jolanta Valeikaitë, who has been with the National Opera and Ballet Theatre for eight years. She has worked under the choreographers Vasiliyev and Maksimova, and has danced leading roles in classical and modern ballets in Germany, Sweden and South America. She also assisted Wang in his production of The Rite of Spring at the Beijing Central Ballet.

The set for Carmina Burana was designed by Adomas Jacov­skis, who has made over 70 sets for Lithuanian theatres and for some abroad. Jerome Kaplan from France designed the costumes.

The texts of the poems lie behind the choreography. Wang says he also tried to express the medieval spirit of Orff’s music. He devised the solo parts in a classical style; while the corps de ballet’s dances are more modern. Fortuna’s dance is impressively performed by Rasa Tau­èiûtë ( above right ).

The medieval choir, which blends with the set, wear monks’ and nuns habits, as do the soloists, Irena Buzaitë, Kæstutis Al­èiaus­kis and Vytautas Juoza­paitis.

Speaking about Orff’s cantata, Wang says: “Everything is integral in nature; and everything keeps repeating itself. Our human existence is in a constant state of change: we are born helpless, then grow up quickly, and we travel through our days confident that we can control our fate.

“Only in maturity do we realise that we have come back to our point of departure and, as at the beginning of our lives, we become helpless again. Only this time we depend on our children, who will grow up and repeat the cycle, until they too die and sink into oblivion, helpless prisoners of Fortuna’s wheel that they are.”   

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