A Bawdy, if Inconsistent, Carmina Burana arrives at the Philharmonic

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When the New York Philharmonic planned its 2011-12 season, scheduling a Carmina Burana—Carl Orff’s lusty cantata devoted to spring awakenings—for the final day of May and first evenings of June must have seemed like one of those instances in which there was a theoretically perfect alignment of artist schedules and seasonal shifts. Too bad spring, if not summer, more or less overtook a nonexistent winter months ago.

No matter: Carmina remains perennially intoxicating with its multifaceted textures and sweeping emotions that bound between full-force grandeur (the Philharmonic stage at Avery Fisher Hall was well-stocked with two choruses, two pianos, three soloists and a full orchestra) and tender intimacy. 

However, the sheer size of the event seemed, surprisingly, to be a little too much for conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos to handle. Musical America’s 2011 "conductor of the year," Frühbeck has a characteristic knack for painting emotions with a flick of his hand or sweep of his arm. And, at nearly 80 years old, he has maintained an active curiosity with familiar works.

Take, for instance, his 1965 recording of the work for EMI, notable for soprano Lucia Popp singing in top form and a glittering interpretation. That Carmina has morphed over the last few decades into a version last night that played on standard tempos in an attempt to discover new facets of the work, but left the piece and pace maddeningly inconsistent. There were some touches of Frühbeck’s firebrand days, such as galloping introduction to “In Taberna” that sounded like the four horsemen of the apocalypse riding into town. But at other times, like a "Tempus est locundum" that avoided the customary gradual build of sexual frustration and went instead for a roller coaster of a tempo, orchestra and chorus were seemingly unable to move in tandem with Frühbeck’s vision.

What made the evening stand out was the trio of soloists. Erin Morley bore the incandescence of a Disney princess circa the days of Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, imbuing the delicate “In trutina” with a heartbreaking sense of desire and trepidation. Her subsequent "Dulcissime,” a work with very little orchestral backup that allows the soprano to shine with dizzying coloratura and arpeggios, captured the sense of ignited passion.

In his brief solo, Nicholas Phan brought an unbridled bawdiness to “Olim lacus colueram,” the internal monologue of a fowl roasting on a spit. In between hitting agonized high notes pushing the boundaries of the tenor range, Phan played up the humor of the moment, fanning himself and tugging at his collar as the chorus sang of the roasting pyre.

South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo, in his New York Philharmonic debut, was omnipresent throughout the work. He took advantage of the ample solo lines to sing the pleas and complaints of a young lover (and drinker) with an eloquence and rounded tones. Though Carmina is a small sampling from an eponymous collection of over 300 medieval poems, Imbrailo’s parts suggest the progression of one strapping lad caught in the throes of mostly-unrequited passion, and Imbrailo exposed this arc for all of its heady highs and lows.

Imbrailo also factored into the other work on the program, selections from Falla’s musical play Atlàntida. Equally opulent in its scoring, the piece details the story of Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the New World. Here, Frühbeck de Burgos was in finer form: When the chorus sings of a sea “that embraces the earth from pole to pole,” you felt a similar, all-encompassing embrace of the music as it poured out through the concert hall, no majestic stone left unturned. Singing the aria of Queen Isabella, soprano Emalie Savoy (who recently made a promising Met debut in The Makropulos Case) brought a dawning tone to the music, singing in shades of cobalt and lavender with serene longing.

Featured in both pieces too was the Spanish choir Orfeón Pamplonés, charging at both works as a unified front but with individualistic shades and tones from each singer—the choral equivalent of a Jackson Pollock. Their Carmina Burana this weekend is a taste of their larger multimedia project with the work, which premiered in 2009 and continues on tour through 2014; it features a staging co-produced by cutting-edge theater company Fura dels Baus. Hopefully we’ll get the chance to see the full extent of this chorus’s Orff-ic force.