Orff Prometheus Orfeo

Carl Orff (1895-1982)
Prometheus (1968)
After Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, in Ancient Greek
Roland Hermann (Prometheus)
Colette Lorand (Io)
Fritz Uhl (Hermes)
Josef Greindl (Kratos)
Kieth Engen (Okeanos)
Heinz Cramer (Hephaistos)
Frauenchor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Rafael Kubelik
rec. live, 1-2 October 1975, Herkulessaal, Munich, Germany
Booklet without texts, with synopsis and notes in English and German.
Orfeo C240012 [2 CDs: 132]

Carl Orff’s Prometheus is based on the drama Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, the only surviving part of his Prometheus trilogy. The libretto of the nine scenes is simply Ancient Greek play text, directly set without alterations or cuts. Orff had long concentrated on text-based music. He sought to combine theatre, music, dance and acting in a unified whole as it was done in Ancient Greece. The musical parts are based on the rhythms of spoken language.

The work as late as Prometheus brings all this to an apotheosis in many ways. The Orfeo label’s publicity explains:

What Carl Orff created with his Prometheus score is neither an opera in the traditional sense, nor an oratorio, nor a play with music, not even ‘authentic’ classical tragedy. Rather, it’s an extremely individual musical interpretation of Aeschylus’ tragedy that concentrates primarily on the symbolic imagery of the scenes, which – as Orff himself said – ‘is accentuated and visualised by the music’, thereby enlightening the spectator and the listener.

How enlightened one will feel may depend on a suspension of expectations of how an opera by the composer of Carmina Burana might sound. (Orff does not call his piece ‘opera’.)

There are various kinds of setting of the text, and far from everything is sung. Some sections, like the opening scene, are declaimed in a high actorly fashion, as two Myrmidons whom Zeus sent to bring Prometheus to the Caucasus and the rock to which he is to be chained. The second scene presents Prometheus lamenting his suffering in what switches between quasi-speech, heightened recitative and singing, and even shouting at moments. It impressively comes as close as can be imagined to portraying a God reduced to suffering like the humans he is being punished for helping, all accentuated by a burning sense of injustice.

Once one tunes in to the musico-dramatic manner, it is convincing, as is Roland Hermann’s passionately committed performance, a real tour-de-force in a hugely demanding role. Much of the rest of the score is given to this rhythmic vocal manner, closer to speech or recitative than to singing, in declaiming the Greek text, punctuated at intervals by illustrative bursts from the percussion.

In the third scene, the Oceanides, the daughters of Oceanus, visit Prometheus, so now singing females are heard. Oceanus arrives for the fourth scene, and there is a colloquy with the bound Prometheus. When he departs, the chorus remains, and the fifth scene belongs to the excellent female choir of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Prometheus adds a touch of melisma and falsetto singing to his range of vocal manners. The women’s singing of the last chorus of scene five is a serene passage, both choral and solo, and closes disc one.

The sixth scene, by far the longest at forty minutes, covers the interaction with Io in three hundred lines of the Aeschylus text. Zeus desires Io, so his jealous wife Hera changes her into a cow, complete with attendant gadfly to torment her. The scene begins with the sounds of Io’s screams at the biting of the gadfly. Her perpetual suffering, depicted in her high tessitura, makes her sympathetic to, and curious about the cause of, Prometheus’s suffering. Colette Lorand copes famously with the second-largest role in the work. But all the soloists sound very well prepared, Ancient Greek pronunciation and all. The closing scene portrays the destruction of Prometheus, his rock, and the Oceanides, plunged into the surrounding waters by a lightning bolt from Zeus.

There is little in the way of conventional orchestral accompaniment, since we do not have a conventional orchestra here. There are no strings other than nine double basses, six each of flutes, oboes, trumpets and trombones, four harps, four grand pianos with eight players, plus organs and four tenor banjos. The score is dominated by a vast percussion section, with all its usual and less usual symphony orchestra members. It is swollen by many non-western instruments, and requires between fifteen and eighteen players. Almost as much as the writing for voices, this instrumentation gives the work its unique sound, emphasising the role that rhythm plays in the compositional fabric. The players perform well, given likely timing difficulties. Some entries are text-related and often lack other instrumental cues, so Rafael Kubelik was an expert guide here. He was perhaps the main source of the extraordinary intensity of this live performance, which transported us to Greece in the 5th century BCE, and to the sufferings of mankind’s great benefactor.

The recording derives from a special occasion, and it sounds like it. One critic present, Karl-Heinz Ruppel from Suddeutsche Zeitung, wrote: ‘No question about it – of all the celebrations accorded to Carl Orff in Munich following his 80th birthday on 10 July [1975], this was the most splendid: the concert performance of his Prometheus under Rafael Kubelik.’ The composer praised it, too.

The booklet contains no text or translations of the Greek, but there is an easy-to-follow synopsis of the plot in English and German, in which the nine scenes of the play are clearly distinguished, plus a fine essay by Dietmar Holland. I found it useful and reasonably straightforward to follow an English version of the play – there are no cuts – especially once the different voices are distinguished. The differences were underscored by the physical separation across the sound stage in the very effective live concert recording. (Philip Vellacot’s thirty-two page translation of the play from 1961, still used by Penguin Classics, is powerful in its own right.)

This is a release to be sampled and heard entire at least once, but it may not be making frequent visits to your CD player. The subject is tremendous, and the treatment of it highly original. Curious, adventurous and bold readers might be intrigued. One will not see a staged performance often, I imagine. Even if one does, it might not be as intense an account of the score as this.

To sum up, this is a very original setting of the full text of the Aeschylus tragedy, performed live in ancient Greek. It is a drama declaimed more than sung, and accompanied mostly by percussion, to a cumulative effect.

Roy Westbrook

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