Carmina Burana: The Scenario and Its Symbols


A Production Concept by Carmen Helena Tellez

1. The General Concept

2. The Scenario and Its Symbols

3. Representative Images


A series of projections behind the performers act as symbolic emblems that accompany the presentation, as a version of Orff’s requirement for “magic images.” The occasional titles in the emblems, in combination with the texts in Carmina Burana act as inscriptions, the apparent “labels” and messages in the narrative. The symbolic and historic images in the projections, along with the suggested staging of chorus and soloists act as the subscriptio, the hidden lesson to be garnered upon deep observation and reflection.

The first image is none other than the Goddess Fortuna, as represented in the 14th-century Carmina Burana manuscript. As the text extols the virtues and commands of Fortuna, the images lead us through its many representations in historical tarots, until it transforms into an image of the Moon. Fortuna and the Moon are one and the same in this archetypal world. The Moon generates a space-time grid and orbs of water and gardens, bringing into being the beautiful Spring of which the Chorus sings in the first few movements of the cantata.

The Artist (baritone) invites us to hear his story. In the spring of his life he pursues love and glory. The Choice of Paris that launched the Trojan War is referred to often in the cantata’s text. Just like Paris, the Artist chooses pleasure and glory over Wisdom and Truth. As he reaches the peak of his success, the world around him changes under the weight of the Nazi’s quest for power. As historical images pass quickly by, we perceive the deceptions and cruelty of war, while the Artist is transfixed by his desire for self-realization and artistic power.

As the Second Tableau opens, a morality play within a play is reflected in the images, emulating the famous story of the German resistance movement, Die Weisse Rose. As the city crumbles under the weight of war, the Dissenting Artist/the Swan (tenor) spreads pamphlets against the regime at the University of Munich with his pupil Sophia/Wisdom (soprano). When he is soon imprisoned he sings of his lost cause, as Truth and Art disappear. Sophia begs the Artist for assistance to no avail. Despair begins to assault the Artist. As a corrupt leader of those around him, he and all citizens with him refuse to see the horrors that surround them, while they sing of drinking and gambling “in taberna.”

The Third Tableau begins with a vision of Sophia/Wisdom as she seeks a companion. The Artist longs for true love union with her. The images show a gradual awakening of metaphysical awareness and redemption. As the Artist joins with Sophia, his old self must die. The cantata ends with chorus singing to Fortuna. Somewhere else, a cycle begins again.

Some of the following symbols and mythical archetypes are chosen for the images and suggested staging, in concordance with usage by the composer himself throughout his career. The others are selected for their intrinsic expressive values, vis a vis current research on the composer, his work, his medieval sources, and the internal structure of Carmina Burana .

•The concepts tied to Fortuna must dominate the scenario, since the work is structured as three tableaus framed by large symmetrical choruses addressing the virtues of Fortuna.

•Fortuna=The Wheel of Fortune=Circles= even in choral blocking. Other circles: crushing wheels-time-clock-orb of the earth-seasons.

•Fortune is like the Moon, waxing and waning. In the Tarot, the moon is the eye of the subconscious, the connection with the masses, and the wish for fame. In his opera Der Mond, Orff sets a fairy tale about the Moon being stolen and taken to the Underworld. The Moon is the esoteric feminine, and reveals the deeper truths in our psyche.

•The Sun opposes the Moon. It is also a Masculine Symbol in Spring. The flourishing of Spring is the emergence of the masculine creative will and the desire for Glory.

•Artist in a Fascist State. Marionettes and Shadow Theater were a preferred activity of Orff’s youth. Greek Tragedy and other forms of ritual drama establish a parallelism to this concept of Man tied to fateful forces.

•The Choice of Paris is recalled often in Carmina Burana.Just as Paris chose Aphrodite above Hera and Athena, leading to the Trojan War, this choice can be enacted as the Composer’s choice between Fame, Wealth and Wisdom.

•The White Rose Movement and the sermons of bishop von Galen stand her as symbols for all resistance movements, and for the defense of true freedom of expression.

•The Swan is Truth and True Art- a beautiful voice and figure. Swans represent Loyalty and Truth in Bavarian lore. In the context of this scenario, the Swan is a heroic figure, not a comic one.

•The Girl Sophia synthesizes many different meanings besides the literal translation as Wisdom: Freedom, Art, Inspiration after Guilt, Death and Transcendence, and the German view of redemption through woman’s love, etc.