Joan of Arc Tells Her Story, and a Choral Force Replies

11.21.11
Marin Alsop
The New York Times

By Vivien Schweitzer

Joan of Arc, the national heroine of France, has inspired innumerable literary and musical works, including an oratorio in 1935 by the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger. The 600th anniversary of her birth, though a matter of some dispute, will be celebrated next year, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, choosing not to wait, presented Honegger’s infrequently performed “Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher” (“Joan of Arc at the Stake”) on Saturday evening at Carnegie Hall.

The work requires an army of musicians, which here included the Peabody Children’s Chorus, the Morgan State University Choir, the Peabody-Hopkins Chorus and the Concert Artists of Baltimore. Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony’s adventurous music director, who is clearly passionate about the 80-minute piece, marshaled the forces in a tightly wrought performance.

Joan’s story is relayed via flashbacks as she awaits her fate, with 11 scenes depicting events, including her military victories against the English, her communion with the voices and her martyrdom in 1431. The work opens with the murky rumblings of a Prologue, which Honegger and Paul Claudel, the librettist, added in 1944, when France was under Nazi occupation.

Claudel’s libretto, sung here in the original French, intersperses poignancy with a strong element of satire. The accusers at Joan’s trial are portrayed as animals, and the Bishop of Beauvais is depicted as a pig. A raucous chorus of animal noises is enhanced by the electronic ondes martenot, also used to vivid effect elsewhere in the score. Jazz is the pervasive theme of the sardonic trial scene; the quirky score also features medieval plainchant, folk tunes, cabaret and neo-Classicism.

The mishmash of eclectic and sometimes gaudy elements often becomes disjointed and doesn’t gel into a particularly cohesive whole, although Ms. Alsop aptly revealed the myriad musical details of each scene.

The work is as much musical theater as oratorio, and the two leads are spoken roles. Caroline Dhavernas imbued her portrayal of Joan with dignity, expressive depth and urgency, particularly in her tragic concluding moments. Ronald Guttman enacted the role of Brother Dominic with charismatic flair. The vocal soloists, all strong, included the mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, the bass Morris Robinson, the sopranos Tamara Wilson and Hae Ji Chang, the tenor Timothy Fallon and the child soprano Caitlin DeLatte.

In the final scene Claudel and Honegger focus on the transcendental message of Joan’s death rather than the brutality of her murder. The work ends on a serene note, with the children’s chorus and female soloists singing, “Greater love has no man than he who gives his life for those he loves.”