Beyond ‘Burana’

Times Staff Writer

The Ojai Music Festival, under its new artistic director, Thomas W. Morris, lighted a spark Friday for a revival of the neglected works of Carl Orff with an engaging concert performance of the opera “Die Kluge” (The Wise Woman). Whether the spark turns into a prairie fire remains to be seen, but many of the contagious elements are there.

Actually, it wasn’t so long ago that Orff was known for more than the popular -- some would say unavoidable -- “Carmina Burana.”

In addition to “Die Kluge,” there were recordings of the operas “Der Mond” (The Moon) and “Antigone,” the “Catulli Carmina,” “Entrata After William Byrd” and other works, including the still-influential “Schulwerk” (Schoolwork), a series of exercises created and compiled by Orff and Gunild Keetman, meant to encourage the imagination of children.


But decades of mind-numbing performances of “Carmina Burana” have, at least in this country, pushed these off the stage. “Carmina,” incidentally, doesn’t have to be so deadly. Wolfgang Sawallisch’s classic recording for Angel, made in the late ‘50s under Orff’s supervision, proves that simplistic repetition was never the composer’s aim, though few subsequent performances picked up on that point.

“Die Kluge,” premiered in 1943, certainly has family resemblances to the 1937 “Carmina.” Some of its catchy rhythms and tunes would easily fit into the earlier work. One of the characters even sings a fragment of the famous “O Fortuna” opening chorus of “Carmina.” Savvy listeners can detect other connections.

But “Die Kluge” is much leaner and less intoxicating. Although it often follows the same law of three, in which a tune is repeated three times, the melodies are shorter. They don’t sweep us away at the expense of the drama. Yet Orff’s ability to evoke scene and atmosphere remains intact, whether in the brief upswing fanfare that heralds the King’s appearance or the magical night music that signals the passing of time.

The work also is quite modern in its mix of minimalistic musical elements, use of speech and heterodox dramatic ideas.

The plot is based on a folk tale found in many cultures of a peasant woman who outwits and humanizes a tyrannical king by answering three of his riddles. Orff overlays the story with a Brechtian trio of vagabonds who comment on and participate in the action, which includes a man unjustly cheated in a case decided by the king.

In this Libbey Park performance, which was sung in English, the three veteran Los Angeles Opera principals seized the stage with vivid characterizations. These were Greg Fedderly as the cheated Man With the Donkey, Michael Gallup as the splendidly smug Jailer and John Atkins as the conniving Man With the Mule.


Their colleagues, who haven’t been in as many productions, gained the valuable performing experience that will help them in their careers. These were Gregorio Gonzalez as the King, Joohee Choi as the Peasant’s Daughter, who answers his riddles and becomes queen, James Creswell as the Peasant, and Robert MacNeil, David Babinet and Jinyoung Jang as the Three Vagabonds.

It would be a pity if all these singers (who were amplified) learned their roles only for this one performance. At the least, school performances would be a good idea. Can a revival of “Der Mond” be next, please?

Festival music director Kent Nagano led the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra knowingly and with consideration.

He opened the program with San Francisco-Bay Area composer Kurt Rohde’s 17-minute “Double Trouble,” a compact, challenging chamber concerto for two violas and a five-member ensemble.

Rohde and Ellen Ruth Rose were the violists. The other musicians were flutist Heather Clark, clarinetist Phillip O’Connor, violinist Stuart Canin, cellist Erica Duke-Kirkpatrick and pianist Mari Kodama. Though far from having Orff’s easy appeal, Rohde’s three-movement work was also immediately engaging.