Would Joan of Arc be locked up if she were around today? Hearing voices, infiltrating a royal court, waging war. She’d either be a national heroine or jailed-the White House has learned something about gate crashers-but you’d know she’d turn up on CNN and maybe have her own reality show.
She has inspired artists, playwrights, Shaw twice! and films-including the magnificent Passion of Joan of Arc by Carl Dreyer.
Not surprisingly there are two operas and an oratorio. The latter is Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc a bucher-which I mean to suggest to Jean-Marie Zeitouni. For their “Joan operas” Verdi and Tchaikovsky, forty years apart turned to the same source: Friedrich Schiller.
Schiller loved historical melodrama. Facts needn’t get in the way of a good show. Maria Stuart has the royal cousins Mary and Elizabeth all but mud wrestling. They never in fact came within 100 miles of on e another. Don Carlos romanticized a title character who was insane and has him in love with his step- mother.
And then, there’s Die Jungfrau von Orleans.
Verdi wrote his Giovanna d’arco in 1845. His seventh opera, the score is not very strong and the piece rarely holds the stage. The most famous revival was sixty years ago, in Milan with Carlo Bergonzi and the young Renata Tebaldi. Nobody would choose to listen to Giovanna d’arco-with or without these great voices, in place of Ada or La traviata.
Tchaikovsky’s opera from 1879. He fashioned his own Russian language libretto from Schiller’s play. But where Schiller-and Verdi-had Joan die on the battlefield-and yes, cue angel voices, Tchaikovsky takes us to the horrible fire at Rouen which ended the maid’s life. There’s also a love scene, an ungrateful king with his pretty mistress, and a mad father.
Orleanskaya deva isn’t a great opera. Tchaikovsky did it better with Pikoya dama, Eugene Onegin and Mazeppa. But Tchaikovsky’s Joan of Arc opera is a great show. It’s filled with doubled winds and brass and angry rich strings. After all, in battle most of the time, or in love briefly or at court-or being burned to death. You need a dramatic voice in the title role, and a smooth baritone, plus a character tenor for the king (wimp) and a rumbling bass for the Archbishop.
I first heard The Maid of Orleans on an old recording from the Soviet era Bolshoi with the great Irina Arkhkipova and a dreadful supporting cast. The conductor was Gennady Rozhdensvensky and he was phenomenal. I heard the work in Carnegie Hall with the Opera Orchestra of New York, in concert, conducted by Eve Queler-with the Yale Russian chorus. Dolora Zajick, a dramatic voice if there ever was a dramatic voice sang the title role.
In a concert you could let the huge chorus and cymbals and brass and Dolora rip. I assure you, a good time was had by all.
This recording will be featured on Saturday on Stage . To whet your appetite, here’s a bit of Act I from the Bolshoi. Joan tells the villagers that her voices are sending her to the king.
Saturday on Stage is heard Saturdays at 1.30 on Classical 101.