Eat, drink and be merry: Cuenca performance of Orff’s Carmina Burana is a feast for the eyes

Mar 1, 2018 | 7 comments

Story and photos by Bartley D’Alfonso

O Fortuna, like the moon you are ever changeable, ever waxing, ever waning . . .” These are the opening words to the popular cantata “Carmina Burana,” written by German composer Carl Orff (1895 – 1982), which premiered in 1937, and was performed on Tuesday and Wednesday nights in Cuenca’s Carlos Cueva Tamariz Theater.

Each performance included the University of Cuenca Symphony (and Chorus), under the baton of Director and Conductor William Vargara, with notable vocal soloists accompanied by the eloquent dancers from the National Ballet of Ecuador. With an extra chorus of children from local schools, the total cast totaled two hundred.

Composed of twenty-four lusty songs from a collection of twenty-four Medieval-era poems written in Latin, Carmina Burana opens – and closes – with a chorus mournfully singing “Oh Fortune,” about how the goddess of fortune and luck rolls the fickle wheel of fate, unpredictably over mankind yesterday, today and into tomorrow (“Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi,” translated as “Fortune, Empress of the World”).

Many will recognize this opening song, featured in multiple commercials and movies. Carmina Burana means Songs of Beuren, from a monastery near Munich, Germany. The work is divided into three distinct themes. The first theme of “In Early Spring” depicts youthful exuberance in the form of boisterous and celebratory dances, to the tune of itinerant minstrel balladeers, amidst the rebirth of nature (‘They glory and rejoice in honeyed sweetness who strive to make use of Cupid’s prize’).

The second theme of “In the Tavern” evokes the fraternal camaraderie of excessive drinking and feasting, debauchery, lusting, and earthly humor (‘I give myself to vice, unmindful of virtue; I am eager for the pleasures of the flesh more than for salvation; my soul is dead, so I shall look after the flesh’). “Court of Love” is the third theme, filled with the joys of courtship, romantic love, and the desires for a kiss ending in blissful, hedonistic coupling (‘Cupid flies everywhere, seized by desire. Young men and women are rightly coupled’).

Then suddenly, their intoxication of life is ended by a repeat of the chorus ominously singing the stunning “Oh Fortune,”, reminding all that the wheel of fortune – and of fate – still continues to roll. While this cantata contains and exhibits the earthly behaviors of hedonism, even the most prudish of us would have joined the enthusiastic ovations!

The chorus of Dominican monks wore goulish death masks, accentuated under the glow of garish green and red stage lights. All of the ballet dancers were gymnastic yet graceful, reminding me of Olympic athletes.

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