An unlikely juxaposition of Beethoven’s dramatic overture known as Leonora No. 3 with Carl Off’s popular cantata Carmina burana occurred at the Shed last Sunday. The Beethoven overture is the most intense of four that he composed for his sole opera, originally called Leonore and eventually Fidelio. The overture, one of the most powerful scores he composed in any genre, proved too strong to appear at the head of his opera in its final form. Fidelio opens with a scene of light flirtation almost Mozartean in its charm, whereas the overture anticipates the dungeon in which Florestan has been unjustly imprisoned and where his wife Leonore comes to locate him in the guise of the youth Fidelio.
Though unsuited for the opera, Leonore No. 3 has long been performed and welcomed as a superb embodiment of Beethoven’s ideals of noble heroism and freedom. Though it has virtually nothing in common with the vivid colors and tunefulness of Carl Orff’s score, it can be (and was, in this instance) paired with the Orff, which is a little too short to fill an entire concert. Yet putting a piece that somehow anticipates or echoes Orff’s score would weaken its explicit effect. So in this instance, Andris Nelsons chose to put two works, both filled with energy of different kinds, together, and without an intermission to produce a suitable concert length with quite different musical moods.
Beethoven’s overture gives a strong inkling of the opera’s story, beginning in darkness, moving to a quotation of Florestan’s aria recalling the happy springtime of his life now gone. The energetic music that follows climaxes with an offstage trumpet call—a specific reference to the opera, where the villainous director of the prison orders this signal from the tower to warn him of the arrival of the governor of the prison’s arriving to inspect reports of prisoners who should not be there, giving him time to execute Florestan. In this context, the trumpet call indicates that the execution will not take place and Florestan will be freed.
The only explicit link between Beethoven and Orff here may be the reference to springtime in Florestan’s aria. In Orff’s cantata, springtime and the blossoming world and folk dances and drinking and young love all come in a very different mood, yet one all held under the influence of the goddess Fortuna, celebrated with a poem set at the beginning and end of the cantata in music that has been employed many times since Orff wrote this score on trailers for forthcoming films for which the official score has not been composed or recorded yet!
Debuted in 1937, Carmina burana, had a mixed reception under the Nazis, but reached a large popular audience in the central years of the 20th century, only to be deemed too popular by the Darmstadtists. By the end of the century, as more and more composers backed away from the advanced and complex forms of dissonance then considered essential for music to be “serious,” it returned to concert stages
Orff’s work satisfies concert crowds today. The Tanglewood audience on Sunday had the advantage of super-titles, allowing those without Latin (or Medieval German or French) to enjoy the humane and lively lyrics along with the music, and without having to keep their heads bent over in the program book to get the words (which many did not bother to do). Having a good translation directly over the heads of orchestra and singers made the performance come to life in a way many older performances might not.
Nelsons led an account alternately vigorous and light-hearted, ranging from the pastels of springtime to the thumping noises of the beer hall, the sweet lovesongs of swains and maidens. We were caught up in the orchestral colors, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, James Burton, director, took up the range of very earthy themes with delightful energy.
Both orchestra and chorus were dressed in some combination of black and white. Thus, when the three soloists entered, Spring herself seemed to arrive in the person of Erin Morley, resplendent in a royal purple gown with suggestions of fruits and flowers around the neck. Her high soprano part comes almost at the end of the piece, but the rich color of her garb remained at center stage as a constant evocation. The intriguing lament of the roasted swan was wonderfully projected (from the serving plate, so to speak) by countertenor Reginald Mobley, and baritone Will Liverman spearheaded the festivities of drinking monks. The sweet, high tones of Erin Morley projected the explicit encounter of boy and girl before the return of Fortuna.
“O Fortuna” takes the work to a final driven climax that brought the audience (which knew what the words meant, thanks to the supertitles) to something of a frenzy.