in: Reviews

September 20, 2017

Tchaikovsky’s Maid Is Truly Grand

by

Kate Aldrich as Joan (Kathy Wittman photo)

Odyssey Opera’s concert version of Tchaikovsky’s four-act Maid of Orleans, at Jordan Hall on Saturday night, overflowed with tense, rhythmically energetic passion and aching lyricism. The colorful scoring and superb use of the woodwinds—often in expressive solos—as well as the strings and brass instruments in characteristic ways would have left even a blindfolded listener no doubt he was hearing Tchaikovsky.

First praises must go to the Odyssey Opera Orchestra for its color, blend, drive, and polish, which over nearly four hours, made the opera go—quite an accomplishment in a work previously unknown to most of them.

Following on Eugene Onegin, The Maid of Orleans, could hardly be more different. Tchaikovsky himself described Onegin as a series of conversations, mostly in polite society, where the drama is contained in the internal feelings of the participants. But for The Maid of Orleans, the composer aimed at something vast and sprawling: wars and rumors of wars, processional marches (military and liturgical) on the model of the French grand operas of the day, perhaps specifically inspired by Verdi’s Don Carlos, which is also based on a play by Schiller.

Each of the four acts sets a different location with largely different characters (except for Joan herself), thus creating a certain dramatic dislocation from one to the next. The common thread is Joan; the other characters are for the most so little defined that they are largely cardboard figures. We only get hints as to why Thibault, Joan’s father, chooses to denounce her as a servant of Satan after she has accomplished such a prodigious act of military leadership on behalf of his own French neighbors, except that she chose not to marry Raymond, her father’s choice, so as to have a male protector during the unsettled times. Her later love of Lionel after defeating him in single combat is kindled with improbable speed (though such things are hardly unknown in opera!), yet this sentiment prevents her from making an effective answer to her charges of betrayal. (This part of the libretto does not come from Schiller’s play; Tchaikovsky, apparently feeling the need for a love interest in his opera, drew the material largely from an earlier French play which had already been turned into a libretto for a French opera.)

Saturday night, of course, no spectacular sets dazzled the eye, though minimal lighting changes assisted in setting moods. Rose chose singers effective for their parts, though almost none of the singers could manage good Russian, Those sounds—especially the “hard L” that gives a special sonority to tones issuing from the mouth, and so easily melted into the “soft L” by non-Russians—require very detailed coaching both for soloists and chorus. My own Russian is limited, and I never felt that the soloists had missed the right sound, yet the arrival in Act II of Mikhael Svetlov as the Archbishop immediately provided tones that bespoke Russianness well beyond that of the singers already heard. (Later Aleksey Bogdanov, as Lionel, added to the Slavic vocal color.) Nevertheless, all of the soloists knew what they were singing and projected clearly, even over the large orchestra.

Given the size and dramatic range of her role, it is safe to say that a performance of The Maid of Orleans stands or falls in the singer who undertakes Joan. In the title role, Kate Aldrich ranged from prayerful pleas to heroic pronouncement to lovesick passion, and, in the end, to an ecstatic martyrdom. Even though singers stood motionless behind music stands, Aldrich seemed at every moment fully involved in a complete dramatic representation, not only singing her own part with beauty and commitment, but also maintaining a stance that she might hold in an opera house; she even listened when others were singing. Whenever she was on the stage, she held it.

The remaining singers, all very fine in their vocalization, tended to appear stiff except when actively taking part in a scene. The stentorian Kevin Thompson, as Thibaut d’Arc, Joan’s father, made much of his angry charges against her. Yeghishe Manucharyan dispatched the small role of Joan’s intended betrothed Raymond, with clear bright tenor.

Tenor Kevin Ray as King Charles VII seemed hopelessly depressed at the series of French losses to the Burgundian-English armies in the opening of Act II. His attention mainly awakened when entertaining his mistress, Agnes Sorel (well sung by Erica Petrocelli). In diversions such as this, and during the obligatory Gran Opera ballet, the opera’s plot, of course, comes to a complete halt.  But since Tchaikovsky is one of the greatest composers for the dance of any period, these varied and highly colorful orchestral numbers, rarely heard and omitted from many modern performances, gave us great pleasure.

Once the ballet was over, Charles and Agnes discuss the apparently hopeless situation and their plan to flee together when word comes of a surprising victory let, so it seems, by a young woman, who seems to have a direct connection to God in her wisdom and drive. When she arrives, the King first tests her ability perceive truth in complex situations. He tells the knight Dunois (the effective baritone David Kravitz) to question Joan as if he is the king, while Charles will stand by as a courtier. Joan sees through the charade and answers all the questions directly to Charles himself. She tells of the vision that led her to take up arms in leading the fight and explained the condition for victory was a vow of virginity.

Each of the first two acts was about an hour long, and was followed by a 15-minute intermission. The last two acts are somewhat shorter, though each is divided into two scenes. The final act, in which Joan is the only soloist who makes a vocal appearance (along with a chorus of people witnessing her execution and a distant choir of angels) is the shortest of all. These two interrupted by a very short break to allow retuning.

Act III introduces the last of the principals: the Burgundian knight Lionel, who is fighting on the English side. Joan defeats him in a brief hand-to-hand combat, and he expect her to complete the coup de grâce, since rumor has reported that she does not spare her enemies. But she cannot bring herself to kill him, overwhelmed as she is by his manly beauty. These feelings bother her when she remembers her vow. Lionel decides to change sides and fight in her army; accepting his sword, Joan feels the force of love. (There is nothing explicit onstage and no reference to it in the libretto, but evidently Joan feels that she has broken her vow of virginity; this little gap is one of the weaknesses of the libretto. But if we assume that they did at least express their love in more than courtly words, Joan’s later actions become clearer.)

In the second scene of Act III, Joan is celebrated as the victor and savior of the nation, but her father accuses her of dealings with Satan and pleads with her to save her soul. When he asks, “Do you believe yourself holy and pure?” she does not answer. A thunderclap is taken as a sign of divine anger, and the crowd renounces her.

Act IV opens in the woods, where Joan laments her situation. Lionel finds her and she now confesses her love and they join in signing of their passion, which is interrupted by the arrival of English soldiers (their only appearance in the opera), who kill Lionel and seize Joan.

The final scene takes place in the square in Rouen, where a pyre has been built. Joan is to be burned at the stake. She asks for a cross, which she holds in her arms as the flames grow higher and higher. Joan cries out to God as she dies, and the voices of angels reply.

Throughout this long evening filled for the most part with some of Tchaikovsky’s most effective dramatic music, Gil Rose maintained the pace and kept all the forces playing their roles together. The large chorus had an exceptionally large amount of music (and Russian text) to learn. In a stage show, they would have had to change costumes several times to represent different groups of people. Here they stayed in place but sang as soldiers, courtiers, citizens, and angels, sometime in mixed parts, sometimes the men or women on their own. In all, they had more to do than any of the participants but the orchestra; they were well trained by William Cutter for this essential role.

Of Tchaikovsky’s ten operas, only two—Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spaces—are regularly revived outside of Russia. This exceptionally rich score can only develop the force and color of Tchaikovsky’s imagination in a theater or concert hall. The enthusiastic audience on Saturday night showed enormous gratitude. 

The nearly  full forces (Kathy Wittman photo)

Though I would love to see more of the rarer Tchaikovsky operas onstage (especially Mazeppa and Cherevichki), I’m equally looking forward to the other operas in the Odyssey Opera schedule this year, including views of Joan of Arc from the pens of Honegger, Norman Dello Joio, and Verdi, as well as a little-known Donizetti opera about another dramatic incident of the Hundred Years War, the sacrifice of a group of leading citizens of Calais to lift a siege there. All in all, another amazingly focused season of opera almost unheard of elsewhere. And with Tchaikovsky’s grand offering, it got off to a terrific start.

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.

3 Comments

  1. If only we had been able to hear Kate Aldrich consistently. Neither the composer nor the conductor were kind to her. What we heard was very good. But a third or more of her singing was swamped by the orchestra. For the record, this was our experience in the balcony on the left.

    Comment by Raymond — September 21, 2017 at 5:21 pm

  2. Ditto on the overwhelming volume of the orchestra. It often drowned out the singers and at times became simply a nearly painful roar. For what it’s worth, I heard the NEC Symphonia last night in a program including a lot of loud music and it is quite possible to keep the volume to a more reasonable level, even with a big band in a small hall.

    Comment by David Bean — September 28, 2017 at 1:42 pm

  3. The singer who was Joan’s father had some “unpleasant” vocal qualities at his start; syllables were muddled to the point I wondered if he were “phonetically” singing the lines rather than having knowledge of Russian. I was wondering if he was ill or something. Yes, it was Russian, but it was unrecognizable; eventually this difficulty disappeared but I wondered what had happened.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — October 1, 2017 at 1:05 am

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