Odyssey Opera's "Maid of Orleans": Warm Reception

Kate Aldrich as "The Maid of Orleans"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

The Maid of Orleans, composed by Tchaikovsky to his own libretto, was the first in a series of five operas about Saint Joan being presented this season by Boston Odyssey Opera (though, strictly speaking, the next offering, Donizetti's L'Assedio di Calais, on October 26 and 28 at Huntington Avenue Theatre, will focus on the Hundred Years' War before Joan's arrival on the scene). This concert production was given at New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall. Sung in Russian with English surtitles in three acts (the original third and fourth acts combined into one), it was, as always, flawlessly Conducted by Gil Rose, with Chorus Master Dr. William Cutter leading the company's chorus. Much of the life of the titular saint, such as her immolation, is incorrectly described in many works, but one, Histoire Veredique et Merveilluse de la Purcelle d'Orleans by Maurice David-Darnac, notes that in the study of history, the search for truth is what matters. Tchaikovsky based his story primarily on Friedrich Schiller's Die Jungfrau von Orleans, and premiered his operatic version at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1881. It would not be heard in its entirety in the U.S. until 1976 in Reno, Nevada.

The place is of course France, and the time is the beginning of the 15th century, in the middle of the Hundred Years' War. Peasant Thibault of Arc (bass Kevin Thomas) wants his daughter Joan (mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich) to marry Raymond (tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan), but she feels another calling altogether, predicting imminent victory for the French. Despite the courage of Knight Dubois (baritone David Kravitz), the King (tenor Kevin Ray) decides to flee. Then the Archbishop (bass Mikhail Svetlov) and various courtiers inform the king that the British have been defeated by the French, led by a maid who had a vision telling her to lead the fight. She is given command of the army, fighting Knight Lionel of Burgundy (baritone Aleksey Bogdanov), whom she cannot kill due to his handsome face. He chooses to side with the French, offering his sword to his new-found love. While the nation, including the Peasant Bertrand (bass David Salsbery Fry) and the king's beloved Agnes Sorel (soprano Erica Petrocelli) celebrate her victory, Joan's father believes her actions are the work of the devil, challenging her to prove her innocence publicly. When the heavens thunder, the people see this as a message of divine judgment and renounce her. Though Lionel tries to protect her, Joan drives him away. Alone in the woods, she is found by Lionel but their reunion is cut short by the arrival of English soldiers who kill Lionel and set up a pyre in the square of Rouen. Though the people begin to question her guilt, she is immolated, crying out to God as an angel (soprano Sarah Yanovitch) voices divine forgiveness.

A small percentage of the audience committed acts of attrition as the almost four hour opera progressed; those who persevered received ample redemption for their constancy. As is the case with most grand productions (with seventy-five orchestra members, a chorus of some sixty-five singers, and ten soloists), Jordan Hall proved once again the perfect venue for an overwhelming experience like this one. Along with the wonderful orchestra and choruses, (one angelic group literally in balcony heaven), the leading roles of this seldom-produced work were all excellent, especially New England native Aldrich (magnificent in what is considered a “killer role”), well supported by all of the soloists, especially the magnetic Thompson.

Next up after Donizetti's Siege of Calais, will be the company's concert performance of The Trial at Rouen, composed by Norman Dello Joio, which will be the first ever given before a live audience, as it was written in 1956 for a televised broadcast (expanded into a longer work three years later, with a different title, for New York City Opera); it focuses on Joan's interrogation and its questionable sentencing. It will also be at Jordan Hall, with an added work by Dello Joio, his Triumph of Saint Joan Symphony, in a co-production with Boston Modern Opera Project. Jeanne d'Arc au bucher by Arthur Honegger, to be performed on February 17 at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge in a co-production with the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, centers around the saintly peasant girl in an unusual oratorio known for its mysticism and features a non-singing actor in the title role. Lastly, Verdi's Giovanna d'Arco, more concerned with her love life, will be presented at the Huntington Avenue Theatre on April 5 and 7.

With operas sung in Russian, English, French and Italian, this promises to be an elegantly programmed fifth season for Odyssey Opera. Saint Joan will surely get a deservedly warm welcome.

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