By George Loomis
NEW YORK — Toward the end of every season of Alan Gilbert’s tenure at the New York Philharmonic, the orchestra has typically mounted a major production. Sometimes it has been an opera, sometimes something else. This year’s presentation, Arthur Honegger’s 1938 “dramatic oratorio” Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake), definitely falls into the “something else” category. As seen June 10 at the first of four performances at Avery Fisher Hall featuring French actress Marion Cotillard in the title role, it was one of the most spectacular offerings so far.
Scored for orchestra, chorus, children’s chorus, soloists, and a protagonist who speaks rather than sings, Jeanne d’Arc is anything but a simple retelling of the story of the girl from Orléans who leads her country to victory and pays for her achievement with her life. In fact, to the extent that the work has a narrative time frame at all, it may begin after Joan’s execution. But, as the title implies, the work also seems to take place from the time Joan is bound to the stake, through the conflagration and on into a final apotheosis. In any case, Jeanne d’Arc, which is divided into a Prologue and 11 scenes, contains many flashbacks. None of them portray battle scenes. We get only a few ecstatic descriptions by Joan of her heroism.
What the text, by the poet and dramatist Paul Claudel, a devout Catholic, lacks in narrative clarity is perhaps compensated for in mysticism, religious fervor, psychological probing, and surrealism. (It should be noted that Claudel also wrote the text for another grand and daunting work by a major French composer of his day, Darius Milhaud’s L’Orestie d’Eschyle, which that composer regarded as his magnum opus.)
One way of looking at Jeanne d’Arc in terms of overall shape is that it charts Joan’s path toward self-awareness, starting from a point of extreme naïveté in which the most basic consequences of her actions need to be elucidated by Brother Dominique, and continuing on until her bonds are broken and she is rapturously received into heaven. There is humor, too, albeit of a grim sort, when a surrealistic reenactment of Joan’s trial is presided over by a pig after other animals beg off as unavailable. Joan’s denial of charges against her is summarily accepted as a confession, Claudel here ridiculing the mentality that led to her condemnation. Another surrealistic scene involving a card game similarly points up human failings.
Honegger’s score is fabulously eclectic, starting with a mysteriously murky choral beginning and going on to include plainchant, folk songs, songs in popular style (which are often close to folk songs), and jazz, among other points of reference. And despite the generous — even overgenerous — nature of the score, Honegger saves room for a choral finale of inspiring grandeur.
Whatever one might think of the work, it is definitely the stuff of spectacle, as the production by Côme de Bellescize, which originated at the Seiji Ozawa Festival Matsumoto, made graphically apparent. The set, designed by Sigolène de Chassy and excellently lighted by Thomas Costerg, enclosed the chorus in a slatted fence behind the orchestra, with a platform in the middle on which stood the eponymous stake. After Joan entered, clad in a simple white dress and looking dazed and afraid, and walked slowly around the stage, she took her place on the platform and was hence at or near the stake at all times. Colombe Lauriot Prévost’s costumes were appealingly lavish, from the scarlet robes of two church officials to the pastel clothes worn by the assembled children’s chorus.
Jeanne d’Arc is a work of such high artistic aspirations that one very much wants to see it fulfill them. Certainly the audience received it with considerable gusto. Yet for some reason that is hard to pinpoint — whether it be the idiosyncratic tone of Claudel’s text or the wide-ranging scope and sometimes seemingly random nature of Honegger’s music, or perhaps a need for more tension in Bellescize’s direction — I too often found myself emotionally uninvolved with what was going on, despite the overall clarity with which the work was presented. (It was performed in French with projected English titles.) The most touching moment came at the end, not with the effusive choral finale, but with the subsequent quiet ending, when, on the darkened stage, all we saw were people holding candles and Joan’s body aglow in white; then suddenly she vanished and only the lights of the candles remained.
Gilbert was clearly in his element, enthusiastically and successfully holding all his disparate performing forces together, including the New York Choral Artists and Brooklyn Youth Chorus, both well drilled. Cotillard, an Oscar winner for her portrayal of Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, excelled as Joan, both in conveying the girl’s essential simplicity and in communicating the ecstatic heights of her spiritual awakening.
Other speaking roles were ably performed by Éric Génovèse (Brother Dominique) and Christian Gonon (Narrator and other roles). Among the singers, Simone Osborne and Faith Sherman did well as the celestial figures Marguerite and Catherine; Thomas Blondelle and Steven Humes were in fine form for multiple roles; and Erin Morley sang the Virgin in ethereal tones.
Final performances are at 7:30 p.m. June 12 and 8 p.m. June 13. For more information, go here.
George Loomis writes regularly for the International New York Times and is a New York correspondent for Opera magazine.