OPERA NEWS - The Book Collector & Carmina Burana
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In Review > North America

The Book CollectorCarmina Burana 

Dayton Performing Arts Alliance

IN 2012, the Dayton Opera, Dayton Philharmonic, and Dayton Ballet merged to become the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance. One of goals of the group was the creation of new works involving all three partner organization. That goal was splendidly realized on May 20 with the premiere of Stella Sung’s The Book Collector, a one-act opera designed to be paired with Carmina Burana. Thus, the opera uses the same three soloists as Orff’s scenic cantata, as well as the same orchestra (with an added harp). 

Sung and her librettist Ernest Hilbert have imagined a scenario explaining how the manuscript that Orff used for his texts came to be in the monastery at Benediktbeuren. Set in 1826, the new opera shows Baron Otto von Scott (baritone Andrew Garland) unsuccessfully competing with bookseller Franz Bierman (tenor Andrew Owens) for the manuscript. After the baron sends his daughter Anna (soprano Angela Mortellaro) to sprinkle a drug on the manuscript, the hallucinations that ensue cause Bierman to give the book to a monk in hopes of absolution. Eventually the deranged baron kills the bookseller.  

The Book Collector is an effective piece of musical theater and goes well with its intended companion piece. A good deal of the orchestral writing consists of repeated rhythmic figures, rather in the manner of Orff, but less insistent. Over that dynamic underpinning, the vocal writing is natural, speech-based declamation, with numerous sustained lyrical episodes (such as the baron’s monologue after failing to obtain the manuscript, a quasi love scene between the bookseller and Anna, and a prayer for Anna near the end of the opera). In addition, Sung incorporates four pieces of music by Bach. The second prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier drives the opening auction scene, much as the chord sequence of the D Minor chaconne gives shape to the final trio. The subject of The Art of the Fugue is incongruously (and delightfully) paired with a Bavarian dance in the hallucination scene. Most striking of all is the adaptation of the twenty-second WTC prelude for Anna’s prayer. Then, toward the end of the action, both the text and the music begin to foreshadow Carmina Burana.

In this production, The Book Collector was more than just a companion piece to Orff’s work. Director Gary Briggle and choreographer (and Artistic Director of the Dayton Ballet) Karen Russo Burke devised a scenario that allowed the three soloists to retain their operatic identities in the fully staged and danced version of Carmina Burana. The second half of the program opened with a brief a cappella choral introduction (“Fortune’s Gifts”) by Sung and Hilbert that showed Anna taking up the drug-sprinkled manuscript and entering into the world of Orff’s musical making, where she continued to interact with her father and Bierman.

Performances were uniformly excellent. As the baron, Garland showed an unexpected strength in the lower register as well as a strong top, and he was also equal to the more extreme demands of Orff’s music. A fine actor, he was especially amusing in Carmina. Owens made an appealing Bierman and was unfazed by the ridiculous tessitura of Orff’s roasted swan. Perhaps most impressive of all was Mortellaro, whose surprisingly powerful lyric soprano carried excitingly through the house. Jeff Sams was an imposing presence as the silent monk. There was fine work from the Dayton Philharmonic, the Dayton Philharmonic Chorus, the Dayton Opera Chorus, and the Kettering Children’s Choir, all under the direction of Neil Gittleman. If the murder of Bierman relied a bit too much on staggering and cape swirling, Briggle’s direction was otherwise fresh and inventive. Simple but elegant costumes by B. Bartlett Blair added to the visual appeal. Kudos to the untiring members of the Dayton Ballet for their realization of Burke’s choreography, which was by turn athletic and charming, especially Nathaly Prieto, Carl Backman, and Case Bodamer, who danced Anna, the baron, and Bierman, respectively, in Carmina

Finally, the rear-projected digital scenery, created by Ninjaneer Studios, LLC, was highly effective, providing a range of interior and exterior settings suggested by the text, as well as some unsettling hallucinatory transformations.  —Joe Law 

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