Carmina Burana in Mumbai: a Mixed Success

IndiaIndia C. Orff, Carmina Burana: Members of the Kazakh State Philharmonic Capella, The Paranjoti Academy Chorus, Living Voices, The Stop-Gaps Choral Ensemble, Symphony Orchestra of India; Marat Bisengaliev (conductor).Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, 25.2.2012 (JSM)

Large-scale works are beloved of concert organisers and audiences alike. After all, which ordinary symphony can compare with Beethoven’s Ninth or Mahler’s Eighth for sheer glamour or frisson? Carmina Burana is surely one of the few in the same league.

However, like others of its ilk, it makes huge demands. For one thing, co-ordinating the oversized orchestra (with augmented percussion section and two pianos), a large choir, children’s chorus and three soloists can be a logistical nightmare. And then there’s the musical challenge of making sure they are all well-rehearsed to play in time and tune, under a conductor who knows exactly what he’s doing.

It is to the NCPA’s credit that these formidable challenges were partially met, on the evidence of the work’s first performance (of two) at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. Not that Mumbai hasn’t heard Carmina before: this was at least the third time the shockingly contemporary Benediktbeuern manuscripts from the Middle Ages, set to music by Carl Orff, have been performed here.

Marat Bisengaliev, Music Director of the Symphony Orchestra of India, conducted this performance himself, with mixed results. Mr. Bisengaliev favoured extreme and sudden changes in tempo, sometimes in two adjacent phrases. A case in point was his conducting of the two orchestral dances: the first thrillingly fast, with its syncopations neatly pointed, the second slow to the point of somnolence. There could have been fewer and shorter pauses between sections in a piece, thus making the performance more spontaneous and organic. One missed an overall sense of structure and unity in his evidently “episodic” interpretation.

The orchestra was able to keep up with him….most of the time. There were occasional minor imprecisions in ensemble from the brass, but the strings played con brio and the percussionists gave it their all.

The chorus was another matter. One initially got the distinct impression they were focussing entirely on singing the words and notes correctly, with the consequent loss of open-throated abandon that only fluency can bring. Things improved gradually during and after “Ecce gratum” as they gained confidence; by the time “Veni, veni, venias” came around they were in fine fettle. However, there were some instances of imperfect co-ordination with orchestra especially when the chorus had to begin a piece – most damagingly in “Floret silva nobilis” and “Swaz hie gat umbe” where their attack was poor indeed, indicating insufficient rehearsal with a mercurial conductor! Moreover, the sopranos did occasionally flat their highest notes, and the male chorus could have been more full-bodied during “In taberna,” but the children’s chorus was bright and clear.

Soprano Annamaria Dell’Oste gave a fluent account in her opening solo but as the performance continued, her vibrato became intrusive. She seemed stretched by the conductor’s slow tempo for “In trutina,” consequently needing to take breath-pauses mid-phrase, and her lower notes were virtually inaudible – not surprising, since the part was written for a full-fledged lyric soprano and, judging by her timbre, she is apparently a coloratura. This paid dividends in the fiendishly high Dulcissime where she managed the flights in alt with hardly any strain. Baritone Javier Arrey sang with a warm full tone and immense musicality but limited understanding of the meaning of words in the haunting “Omnia sol temperat” and the headlong “Estuans interius (which he nevertheless ended with a ringing top A) while his drunken Abbot was decidedly sober. Even so, through impeccable legato and beautifully-rounded vocalism, he conveyed passion in “Circa mea pectora and lovesickness in “Dies nox et omnia movingly, singing the latter entirely in full-voice without resorting to the customary falsetto above the stave….and, sadly, cracked.

The famous Song of the Roasted Swan was prefaced by an evocative orchestral introduction by Mr. Bisengaliev. Tenor Filippo Adami launched into the piece with gusto, attacking the exposed high-notes with fearless security, shifting seamlessly into falsetto when required. This, combined with his graphic colouring of words, made for a vivid rendition and definitely the finest (albeit brief) contribution to the concert that evening.

Speaking of which, the performance the following day was probably more assured, with some of the kinks ironed out. But that’s what rehearsals are for and, with proper attention, it should certainly be possible to get things right on opening night.

Jiten S. Merchant