The Boston Camerata (joined by the Amherst Madrigal Singers) opened its season Sunday at the First Church of Boston with “Carmina Burana”—not the well known version by Carl Orff—but a compilation of the fatalistic and often quite raunchy poetry from an ancient manuscript found in 1803 in a Benedictine Monastery in Bavaria. While the version of these poems set by Orff is wonderful enough, Camerata created something quite different from the uncensored, mostly Latin originals.
According to former Camerata director Joel Cohen, many of the poems in the original manuscript were clearly meant to be sung, and a fair number even include melodies, albeit in an infuriatingly cryptic, nearly un-decipherable notation. Carl Orff wrote entirely new music, but Camerata’s aim was to make it all convincingly medieval, both in text and sound. In constructing Camerata’s Carmina program two decades ago, Cohen sifted through a small mountain of historical and textual references, matching the original texts to more legible versions of the tunes from other manuscript sources, or finding other medieval melodies that made a plausible and singeable “fit.” For instance: the famously comic Song of the Roasted Goose, well known from the Orff oratorio, is, in Cohen’s view, a parody/sendup of the Dies Irae, a chant from the Catholic Mass for the Dead. And so the unfortunate goose, in Camerata’s version, was represented by three unhappy women wailing the chant melody, to the accompaniment of drum rolls.
For this 2013 production, Artistic Director Anne Azéma made further revisions and enrichments to Cohen’s core program, and the result was presented last night with great verve by a top-flight group of performers. Leading the group was Anne herself—singing in languages she knows well, projecting the meaning of the poems with her entire body and infectious personality. Camerata regulars, tenor Daniel Hershey, baritone Donald Wilkinson, and Shira Kammen on harp and fiddle, were joined by a wonderful new soprano, Camila Parias, the subject of a recent article in the Boston Globe: Camila Parias hits a high note in Boston. She sings with a pure tone that matches Azéma’s perfectly. Their duets were astonishingly beautiful.
The group was rounded out by Tom Zajac on winds, psaltery, and percussion, as well as tenor Timothy Leigh Evans, a frequent Camerata collaborator from Germany, and tenor Ryan Turner, the artistic director of Emmanuel Music, who also happens to be a fabulous singer/actor. The keys to the program were both the high technical quality of the singing, and the consistent ability of the singers to act out the emotional content of the poetry (sometimes in a pantomime). In one quasi-theatrical moment, the four male soloists sang and played through a Gamblers’ Mass, cheerfully shooting craps to the tune of Victimae Paschali Laudes, a chant originally about the resurrection of Christ. The Amherst singers gleefully mimed a mini-drama about a venal, corrupt (and female) Pope as Donald Wilkinson sang out an indictment of corruption in Rome (Bulla Fulminante). The Amherst students also sang admirably.
Divided into three sections, the program began with poems questioning the difference between good and evil or right and wrong, the second section described the pleasures and dangers of avarice and sin, and the third dealt with the power of Venus. All were brought to life with humor and power. The final number, Tempus Adest Floridum, a song to the joys of spring, ended with general jubilation and bell-ringing. The delighted capacity audience responded with a standing ovation.
A disclaimer: David Griesinger is a Camerata Board member – but at this concert he was anything but bored.