Odyssey's "Trial at Rouen": Keeping Up with the Joans

Heather Buck in "The Trial at Rouen"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

More than a half century ago, the televised series known as NBC Opera Theatre, (which, in its heyday, produced such works as Amahl and the Night Visitors) presented in 1956 a new opera,Trial at Rouen, composed by Pulitzer Prize winning Norman Dello Joio, to his own libretto. As part of their continuing discovery of lost or little-known music, Odyssey Opera and Boston Modern Orchestra Project, both under the direction of Gil Rose, recently performed this piece at Jordan Hall; it had never before been performed on stage before a live audience, and was thus a world premiere of sorts. It was part of an evening that included the composer's 1951 The Triumph of St. Joan Symphony. These were in turn a part of the company's presentation of five musical depictions of the life and times of Joan of Arc. As the composer put it, his efforts portrayed the “ageless conflict between the individual of excessive imagination and those who hold to the status quo”. So far we've had the opportunity to appreciate several variations on the life and death of Joan of Arc, now two of them in one night.

The symphonic work is in three movements, The Maid, The Warrior and The Saint, with music that illustrates Joan's growth from simple maiden (including a lovely duet featuring flute and oboe), to soldier (denoting assembling of forces, charging into battle and victorious joy), to saint (invoking Gregorian chant). First there was a very bucolic and pastoral depiction of the virginal maid, then a sudden unabashedly bellicose motif with an orchestral attack that the warrior saint would have loved, and finally an ethereal mood piece. It was an enjoyable “curtain raiser” for the evening, strikingly reminiscent of movie music along the lines of the great Hungarian film composer Miklos Rozsa (the 1959 Ben Hur, and close to a hundred other motion picture scores), that is to say, good listenable movie music.

The same, alas, could not be said for Dello Joio's operatic take on the tale. While it often made for enjoyable listening, at least on first hearing, it too frequently bordered on schlock; there are perhaps good reasons why musical works fade into obscurity. That said, it's hard to imagine a better performance of the work, from all the artists on stage, though it must be said that the composer's biggest error was to be his own librettist. The opera, written (and sung here) in English, is in two acts, together encompassing just an hour and a quarter, concerns the last days of Joan. In the Prelude, a Soldier (tenor Jeremy Ayres Fisher) encounters Father Julien (baritone Luke Scott), who is the confessor to the accused Joan (soprano Heather Buck), and they discuss her case. Later, in the ruined Rouen fortress, a group of Inquisitors chant (offstage) as Pierre Cauchon (baritone Stephen Powell), the English-leaning Bishop of Beauvais, speaks with Julien about the woman's dress which Joan declines to wear, a symbol of her defiance to the Inquisitors' demands that include renouncing her claim of hearing heavenly voices, their differing perspectives echoed in the music. There follows a lengthy scene in Joan's cell after her abusive Jailer (bass Ryan Stoll) leaves her with Julien, who urges her to don the dress and realize her sin is that of pride. But their mutual sympathy is short-lived with the return of the Jailer. When, at Julien's request, she is left alone, she speaks to the dress and renews her conviction not to wear it, as well as admitting her fear of the flames and wondering about her possible future, if any. At the trial itself, Cauchon warns “she is a greater menace than she knows”, followed by reactions from the people, then the inquisitors, and finally solos from Cauchon, Joan herself, and Julien. While she refuses to swear the truth on a copy of the Bible, the people beg her to submit, and the Inquisitors proclaim she is a heretic. Joan tells them to light the fire, and is ultimately led to the stake, singing of peace, which she seems to have found at last.

Both the symphony and opera were superbly conducted by Rose, with Chorus Master Mariah Wilson leading a group of two dozen plus a quintet of inquisitors. The opera was of interest, through composed and fluid, with prosody, matching of sung rhythms to the words, but in the end didn't sustain that initial interest, especially it what seemed an endless death scene (not an operatic novelty, to be sure), though movingly sung and acted by Buck at her best. All of the individual singers, as well as the chorus, were flawless; it was a pity that the text was often so pretentious (“I shall hold true to my beliefs though they tear me limb from limb”, or “Oh God, why have you abandoned me?”).

The cycle of five operas based on St. Joan and her times will continue on February 17th with a performance of Honegger's Jeanne D'Arc au Bucher at Sanders Theater in Cambridge, with a spring offering of the final work in the series, Verdi's Giovanna D'Arco. It will have been an estimable effort on the part of Odyssey Opera to demonstrate the diverse spectrum of music devoted over the years to this enigmatic figure, facilitating one's keeping up with the Joans.

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