Throughout the 2011-2012 season the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will be paying homage to the legendary heroine of France, Joan of Arc. In fact, the 600th anniversary of her birth will be celebrated in January 2012. Perhaps only one born in that frigid month would have the fortitude to transform herself from an illiterate peasant from the unnoticeable village of Domremy in Lorraine to the virginal military monarch she came to be known. Last night’s performance of Arthur Honegger‘s Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher by the BSO was a nuanced voyage through the psyche of Joan waiting to be burned at the stake.
Honegger, a member of Les Six, was commissioned by the dancer and actress Ida Rubenstein to write a work based on Joan of Arc that she could perform. Rubenstein also contacted the French poet and dramatist Paul Claudel, who initially turned her down because of aversion to writing a historical character into a fictionalized piece. After that conversation, Claudel had a vision that completely changed his mind and wrote the text for the piece in a matter of days. Honegger was so inspired by Claudel’s writing that he later wrote, “I don’t regard myself really as the composer but simply as a collaborator… All I did was follow his indications and put my technical know-how at his disposal.” It is because of Rubenstein’s influence to perform in the work as an actress and Claudel’s magnificent writing that the work is wholly effective as an oratorio. There are two spoken roles Joan (played by actress Caroline Dhavernas) and Brother Dominic (Belgian actor, theatrical producer and film producer Ronald Guttman) contrasted by five singing roles featuring Tamara Wilson (soprano), Hae Ji Chang (soprano), Kelly O’Connor (mezzo-soprano), Timothy Fallon (tenor), and Morris Robinson (bass.)
The BSO pulled in a handful of local choirs to lend their voices to this work: Morgan State University Choir, Peabody-Hopkins Chorus, Peabody Children’s Chorus, and the Concert Artists of Baltimore. The chorus was presented a broad and rich sound. Overpowering in the condemnation of Scene III: “The Voices of the Earth”, “Heretic! Sorceress! Apostate! Barbarian!” they chant and sing and then turn toward the humorous and absurd in the famous “hee-haw” chorus in Scene IV: “Joan Given up to the Beasts.” The ondes Martenot (played with exuberance by Cynthia Miller), invented by Maurice Martenot in 1928, lent its sweeping glissandi and windy electronic sound to the braying and overall animal imitations.
“Hail, Sir Donkey, sing away, ha hee-haw, face!”
Fallon, a pig meant to parody Bishop Cauchon, and Robinson were delightful in their commitment to character both in voice and comportment. Likewise, Dhavernas was compelling from beginning to end. Even the way that she rose from her chair to face her accusers was imbued with theatrical quality. She is able to demonstrate many complex emotions especially in this oratorio setting as opposed to a staged operatic setting. The lighting of Joan throughout the evening was a production detail that did not go unnoticed, especially during the times that she was lit from behind in a pure white light and the instrumentalists and chorus were bathed in blues and reds. Guttman was similarly gifted in his profound portrayal of Brother Dominic.
“But it is hope that is the strongest.”
It is in the last three scenes, “The Sword of Joan”, “Trimazo”, and “Joan of Arc in the Flames”, that the tension truly builds and transforms the piece. Chang and O’ Connor as Joan’s childhood friends, Catherine and Margaret, sang so serenely and powerfully. Their singing voices mingled with Dhavernas’ speaking voice as she exalts her faith while the BSO strings soar in their own rapturous wonderment. Wilson, as the Virgin Mary, shone in the final scene as she encourages Joan, “Are you not already a great flame?” The entire performance was complex and transcendent, did not rely on any gimmickry, and left the audience with powerful feeling of respect for the music, the words, and for Joan of Arc herself. Highest praise to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for this innovative performance and for choosing a stellar ensemble of musicians and actors to portray its beauty and poignancy.