Odyssey Opera’s upcoming season cleaves with remarkable vision and consistency to its theme of “Trial by Fire,” a five-event celebration of Joan of Arc and the Hundred Year’s War consisting of: The Maid of Orleans by Tchaikovsky this Saturday, Siege of Calais by Donizetti on October 26th & 28th, The Trial at Rouen by Norman Dello Joio on December 1st, Jeanne dArc au Bûcher by Honegger on February 17th , and Giovanna dArco by Verdi on April 5th and 7th. One can collect tickets for the entire series now if one wants to be assured of the best seats.
Of the first show, conductor Gil Rose writes that “The Maid of Orléans represents Tchaikovsky’s closest approach to French grand opera with its large-scale cast and orchestra. While the composer’s libretto remains true to much of the Joan legend, including her visions, strength in battle and fiery martyrdom, this lush romantic work also tells the story of a conflicted Father who ultimately betrays her and of her love for Lionel, a Burgundian Knight. Tchaikovsky’s impassioned score creates a nuanced musical portrait of the intrepid young woman who led the French army to victory.”
Presented one night only in concert version at Jordan Hall on 7:30 on September 16th, the opera features a large cast headed by Kate Aldrich as Joan. Tickets can be purchased through the link here. Odyssey Opera’s informative page on the opera is here.
Tchaikovsky arranged his library of musical scores most interestingly into two bookcases on opposite sides of a room in his last dwellinghouse. One contained the collected works of his two favorite composers—Glinka and Mozart—while the other contained everything else, including a substantial selection of Beethoven symphonies.
But what fascinated me most when I visited in 1988, was Tchaikovsky’s collection of books, ranging from lawbooks (hardly used after he completed his early legal studies) to a wide range of literature, both Russian and foreign. Naturally Pushkin held pride of place not only as the leading poet of Russia but also as the source of his two best-known operas, Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades. But Tchaikovsky was always reading a wide range of literature especially in search of operatic subjects, and he drew from other Russian authors (especially Gogol and Ostrovsky) for several works. There was some Dickens (he was so delighted by The Pickwick Papers that he expressed a desire to learn English so as to read it in the original. As a fluent speaker of French, he had a number of books in that language. But for the purposes of this discussion, the most important element was a number of Schiller’s dramas in a Russian translation by Vasily Andreyevitch Zhukovsky. Schiller had already attracted a large number of opera composers, though few of the resulting works are remembered other than those by Rossini and Verdi. It may have been Verdi’s grand opera Don Carlos that made Tchaikovsky think of Schiller, for he decided to put his hand to that grandiose quasi-historical genre that appeared as the most celebrated and lavish operas of the day.
Generally connected with the Paris Opéra, which commissioned one or two of them a year, they were based on historical subjects (though treated without much regard to historical accuracy), usually cast in five acts, and produced with impressive stage effects with regard to scenery, special effects, and number of performers (including one or more large choruses), and including an elaborate ballet somewhere in a middle act. The standard pattern for the mid-nineteenth century was created by librettist Eugène Scribe and composer Giacomo Meyerbeer in the 1830s (Robert le Diable, Les Huguenots). One feature that seems particular prominent in Scribean librettos from Meyerbeer through Verdi to Tchaikovsky was the theme of supposedly religious people who act in a singularly irreligious way, attempting to destroy an enemy of a different faith, or of the same faith but a different nationality.
Tchaikovsky found Schiller’s Jungfrau von Orleans (which he knew as Orleansakaya Deva and we as The Maid of Orleans) to be ideal for this purpose. A story of military combat brought plenty of participants onstage for the large choruses. A central character who is one of the most famous women in history allowed for a major role for a female voice to contrast with all the male voices of soldiers and priests. The notoriety of the principal character by itself would presumably attract an audience.
Tchaikovsky expected it would make his name popular. Indeed, it seemed at the outset that this would be the case. The premiere at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg in February of 1881 achieved an unqualified success. The following year in Prague, it constituted the first Tchaikovsky opera to be performed outside his native land. Thereafter fate intervened. Just two weeks after the premiere, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, causing the closing of the theaters for a period of mourning. After that a season of austerity discouraged the revival of so elaborate a production, and the opera fell into a temporary oblivion, never to see the stage again in the 19th century.
Tchaikovsky wrote his own libretto for Orleanskaya Deva, derived largely from Schiller, but with a number of important changes. Some of these are purely practical, the kind of simplification of a spoken play that skillful librettists have made many times. In the opening scene, Joan’s father Thibault d’Arc is concerned about the welfare of his three daughters in the face of impending attacks from the marauding English army. He successfully arranges two of the young women to become engaged, and presumably protected, by suitors. But when he tries to accomplish the same thing with Joan, she is uninterested in the thought of husbands. Only when a neighbor arrives carrying a helmet does she show any enthusiasm, asking to have it for herself. Of course the two older sisters play no further role, and Tchaikovsky easily (and correctly) cut them from the libretto.
On the other hand, Tchaikovsky greatly enlarged the encounter between Joan and the Burgundian knight Leonel, whom she defeats in individual combat in Act III, scene 1, and who promptly falls in love with her and changes his allegiance to the French side. But this event become Joan’s motivation, in the following scene, of yielding to her father’s charge that she is in league with the devil and confessing her guilt (which she feels from having fallen in love with her country’s enemy).
Tchaikovsky took other scenes from two earlier stage works based on the same material, one a five-act play by Jules Barbier with incidental music by Gounod, and the other an opera by Auguste Mermet, who wrote his own libretto based on Barbier (1876). He also drew some details from a biography of Joan by Henri Wallon. His biggest adjustment to Schiller’s play was the ending: Schiller has Joan die in the midst of battle, mortally wounded. Tchaikovsky has Joan captured by the English (after they have killed her lover Lionel); in the final scene she is burnt at the stake but (carrying a cross) is celebrated by a choir of angels as she passes away. (Other than these closing scenes, the English are much spoken of, but rarely appear on the stage.)
Tchaikovsky’s commitment to the style of the French grand opera put him in the camp opposing the through-composed art of Richard Wagner, who was beginning to conquer followers and imitators.
Over the years, one number has become a reasonably well-known aria for Joan, her farewell to her native land as she sets out to save France at the end of Act I—and it was usually sung or recorded in French (“Adieu, forêts”). Other than that single aria, the score of Tchaikovsky’s grand opera is likely to be completely unknown to modern audiences. Yet it offers a powerful series of scenes, of grandiose operatic passages, fitting for the world of the grand opera of the mid- to late 19thcentury, and a fascinating example the broadens our familiarity with Tchaikovsky’s dramatic art.
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In June of 1988 I visited Moscow with the aim of seeing as many musical sites as I could. Since I was traveling alone, I made arrangements with my travel agent to go to one particular place outside of Moscow that I would not have been able to reach otherwise: the Tchaikovsky House-Museum, the composer’s last residence in Klin, about 85 kilometers northwest of Moscow.. He took an apartment in a house built some 20 years earlier by V.S. Sakharov. It was spacious, pleasant, and isolated from heavily traveled routes to avoid an increasing number tourists who had dropped by in his previous residence just to see the famous composer.
Tchaikovsky rooms were on the second floor; his servant Alexei Safronov lived with his own family on the lower floor. After Tchaikovsky’s death, his brother Modest kept the apartment in its original form and arranged for it to become the first memorial museum of its type in Russia. (In his will, Modest left the house, manuscripts, and furnishings to the Moscow branch of the Russian Musical Society, with the stipulation that it be treated like the museums devoted to Mozart and Beethoven in Salzburg and Bonn respectively. (During World War II everything was removed for safekeeping when the Germans occupied the house during the battle for Moscow. It was returned and rededicated at the end of the war.)
When I arranged to visit Klin during my 1988 trip, I assumed there would be a bus and a guide for a group of tourists, but in the end there was a car, a driver, and an English translator—and me. When the staff at Klin realized that I was a musicologist with a special interest in Tchaikovsky, they called their leading guide, a woman who had at her fingers many details of Tchaikovsky’s life, works, and friends. She allowed me easily two hours to look closely at everything in the room and was delighted when I was able to recount the mishap during the world premiere of the Piano Concerto No. 1 in Boston, when the trombones entered wrong in the first movement. The soloist Hans von Bülow shouted “The brass can go to hell!”.
Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.