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Saturday, June 13, 2015

Opera Review: A Nightmare of Ecstasy

Jeanne d'Arc at the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Marion Cotillard (center) is Joan in Jeanne d'arc au bûcher at the New York Philharmonic,
Photo by Chris Lee © 2015 The New York Philharmonic.
The first thing you saw was the stake.

There it loomed, an ugly, vertical timber mounted securely on a purpose-built wooden platform. Flanking it were wooden pew-like risers which slowly filled with robed choristers. Below the platform, the vast, arrayed orchestral forces dressed in modern concert blacks and surrounded by an acting surface that thrust into the auditorium to bring singers and actors closer the the audience. This was the set for Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher, the closing concert program of a turbulent and change-filled 2015 New York Philharmonic season. Music director Alan Gilbert led the performance, which marks the end of his sixth season as music director.

During Mr. Gilbert's tenure, the Philharmonic has regularly staged an opera at the end of its spring season, usually a modern work from the 20th century. Arthur Honegger's 1939 adaptation of the story of Joan of Arc (seen Thursday evening) is neither fish nor fowl, having characteristics of opera, stage play and oratorio. It recounts the fate of Joan (Marion Cotillard) as an internal drama, where she may be reacting to the voices in her head as easily as to the influence of some unearthly power.

On Thursday night, Mr. Gilbert reminded a rapt audience of his considerable skill with 20th century opera, leading a taut and controlled performance that started in a dark minor key and progressed slowly, inexorably toward the redemptive major over a long series of musical arcs. Mr. Gilbert balanced the heaviness of Honegger's writing (containing the fear and terror heard in medieval church modes) with the lightness of the scenes for children's chorus (the always excellent Brooklyn Youth Chorus), the whole generated by a hugely expanded orchestra.

An Academy Award-winning French actress who grew up in Joan's city of Orleans, Ms. Cotillard's oeuvre runs from serious drama to Batman movies. She has played Joan onstage since 2005. Here, she summoned tremendous personal dignity and deep involvement with the role, displaying a wide range of emotions from hysteria, to despair to calm acceptance and ultimate ecstasy as she perished in the flames. It was a deeply involving and terrifying performance, her spoken cries all the more poignant against the thick orchestral texture.

Honegger made his heroine a spoken part, putting her plain speech in stark contrast to the chorus, orchestra and other soloists. Ms. Cotillard was surrounded by singing parts (tenor Thomas Blondelle and baritone Stephen Humes took many of these). The New York Choral Artists and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus provided much-needed lightening of the gloomy atmosphere. Honegger loaded his orchestra with exotic instruments (including the saxophone, rarely heard in a concert pit) and the ondes Martenot a French electronic instrument whose ghostly wail suggests the presence of the Holy Spirit.

In Paul Claudel's libretto, the events leading up to Joan's death are told in retrospect: moments relived as her life flashes before her eyes in the flames.  There are scenes with the inquisitive Brother Dominic (Éric Génovèse) a sympathetic priest whose church is still determined to burn her. There's a prancing parade for barnyard animals led by a Pig (Christian Goran) who serves as prosecutor, visitations of the Virgin Mary and different saints (Erin Morley, Simone Osborne, Faith Sherman) and one glittering neo-classical sequence where the Kings and Queens of Europe play a game of high-stakes cards in which Joan herself is a bargaining chip. With the tale of Joan's Sword, the tone changes again, beginning its long climb toward transfiguration and redemption.

This staging, first mounted in Japan in 2012 as part of Seiji Ozawa's Saito Kinen Festival seemed determined to inject a certain whimsy into these heavy proceedings. Elements of the theater of the absurd were present, injected by director Côme de Bellescize along with adorable costumes for members of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and a series of 19th century style military uniforms more suited to Sgt. Pepper. However, the mugging and capering dropped away in the work's final bars, helped by the earth-shattering power of Ms. Cotillard's performance and the strong and well-rehearsed cast.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.