Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VII in Reims Cathedral
The temptation to poke fun at Washington National Opera’s production of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans looms large.
Italian soprano Mirella Freni, who began her career in 1955 and who has sung in all of the major opera houses of the world, plays the adolescent Joan of Arc. Guest director Lambeto Puggelli and set and costume designer Luisa Spinatelli chose a spare set that features projections on gauzy sheets that fall throughout the production and are picked up by the players and used in a variety of ways – some of these sheets are bloody red suggesting the folk custom of parading bridal sheets through the town after the new husband has penetrated his virgin bride.
Remember, Joan of Arc is called the virgin warrior. In this re-telling of the Saint Joan tale, which Tchaikovsky based on Schiller’s tragedy Die Jungfrau von Orleans, Joan falls in love with an enemy soldier and this marks the beginning of the operatic tragedy. And then how does Spinatelli justify clothing Joan in dresses instead of pants? Joan’s trial condemned her for the heresy of cross-dressing, a practice that the Church allowed if a woman could prove she was in danger of sexual attack. (Apparently in Joan’s time the pants were laced to the tunic and therefore hard to remove.) But Joan got a bum rap and was exonerated only after her death.
That said, the WNO production of this four-act opera running two hours and forty minutes (not including intermission time) is suffused with majestic musical energy under the baton of Stefano Ranzani, an impressive supporting cast with an extraordinary lead singer, and a minimalist set that keeps the audience focused on the performers.
Act I establishes Joan, against her father’s wishes, as a God-chosen savior of France. In Act II Joan demonstrates her supernatural powers for leading the French against the English. In Act III Joan’s tragic flaw materializes – she falls in love with Lionel, an enemy knight, and her father denounces her as an agent of the devil. Finally in Act IV, English soldiers capture the lovers and Lionel is killed. Joan is denounced as a witch and burned at the stake.
Sandwiched between his very thematically Russian operas Eugene Onegin and Mazeppa, The Maid of Orleans, which Tchaikovsky wrote in six months, is one of the few operas written by a Russian without a Russian setting or inspiration based on a Russian source. Indeed it is odd to hear Jeanne D’Arc singing in the Russian language. Pushing past issues of national identity and culture, The Maid of Orleans, which premiered in 1881, stands today because of Tchaikovsky’s chromatically rich music.
Act I features Joan’s celebrated aria known on the opera circuit as “Adieu, f�rets.” Freni’s wrenching interpretation of this song, in which the young French girl sings good-bye to her beloved countryside and leaves the stage, was followed by boisterous vocal approval by the Washington, DC audience. Freni, proving her ability to be the youthful Joan, poked her head gamin-style from under the gauzy curtain, paused with wide innocent eyes and then emerged upright for a bow. Who would guess that Mirella Freni is 70 years old?
The Act I dialogue on the subject of a husband for Joan was sung by bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin as Joan’s father, Thibaut d’Arc, with tenor Corey Evan Rotz as Raymond, Thibaut’s choice for prospective son-in-law. Although at first Joan refuses to participate in this discussion, the composition widens and the beautiful male duet becomes a musically rich trio. Thibaut and Raymond also sing an impressive duet in Act III, where Raymond counsels Joan’s bitter father to leave Joan to her fate.
Throughout the opera, Tchaikovsky presents a number of large choral compositions and orchestral interludes. Given this scale of musical composition, it is remarkable when Tchaikovsky turns down the volume and offers an oboe solo to offset the scene in which the irresponsible, soon-to-be crowned King Charles VII curls up in defeat (his army is in disarray) in the lap of his beloved mistress, Agnes Sorel.
Although a purist might sorely regret the lack of tangible furniture, buildings, and landscaping that traditional sets offer, projected images in WNO’s production of The Maid of Orleans more than adequately enriched the playing field of Joan’s world. Particularly dramatic were the cinematic flames engulfing the martyred heroine at the end of the opera, achieved by projections on the gauzy see-through curtain. Another particularly effective use of a see-through curtain allowed Joan’s father to stand outside the action in front of a church where Joan was participating in the coronation of Charles VII. When the curtain falls to the stage, Thibaut joins the action to denounce his daughter.
For an opera that was based on Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Grand Opera form, this production of The Maid of Orleans, even without full cast ballets and dances, offers a modern-day audience a satisfying and often exhilarating evening of musical and visual entertainment.