Dello Joio Revealed

Stephen Powell and Heather Buck (Kathy Wittman photo)

Chalk up another revelation offered to Boston opera fans by Gil Rose and Odyssey Opera, this time in collaboration with Rose’s Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Make no mistake, this was an important evening in 20th-century American opera performance on Friday at Jordan Hall.

As part of Odyssey’s season-long exploration of Joan of Arc-themed operas, Rose offered up a real rarity: The Trial at Rouen by American composer Norman Dello Joio, a work apparently unheard since its premiere by the NBC Opera Theatre on NBC Television on April 8, 1956. As Rose wrote in his introduction: “Although millions tuned in for the broadcast, this powerful work has never been performed onstage for a live audience until tonight. It’s my honor…to lead this historic stage premiere…”

Rose opened his concert with Dello Joio’s The Triumph of Saint Joan Symphony, an orchestral work from 1951/2 that had been based on an even earlier St. Joan opera, withdrawn by the composer in 1950.  I first became familiar with this Symphony as a lad when I received an LP in the mail that contained a blazingly committed performance of it by the Louisville Orchestra conducted by Robert Whitney. I still have it, love it to this day, and recommend you listen to it HERE.

Gil Rose’s concert thus formed a pleasing mini-survey of two large scaled scores Dello Joio produced in the 1950s. Among his more popular scores of the time included a background score for the TV series Air Power, from which he formed an orchestral suite in 1956.

The list of works produced by Dello Joio (born Nicodemo DeGioio in New York on January 24, 1913), is impressively lengthy, featuring many combinations of instruments and voices. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1957 Meditations on Ecclesiastes, a thoughtful and moving work for string orchestra. His To St. Cecilia, a brilliant and powerful work from 1958 in praise of the Patron Saint of music for mixed chorus accompanied by brass has been heard twice in recent years in Cambridge, performed by The Spectrum Singers under this author’s direction.

That Dello Joio isn’t heard very often, especially in Boston, where he was professor and Dean of the faculty at Boston University’s School of Fine Arts, constitutes something of a mystery; thus Rose’s exploration on Friday.

Most of the composer’s output is pleasing to the ear, colorful and dynamic, sincere and well-matched to his performing forces. It’s almost always diatonic, euphonious, and engaging. The three movements of Triumph of St. Joan Symphony each employ church chant motives as a unifying element. Their titles are “The Maid,” “The Warrior” and “The Saint.” The scoring for all three is robust and at times a bit thick, with occasional lyric moments of transparency, especially evident in the Symphony’s opening movement. Its portentous beginning is followed three bell strokes that are heard in each movement at telling moments of drama. A clear and naive flute solo serves as a motif for the young Joan. Echos of Dello Joio’s study with Paul Hindemith occasionally pervade the woodwind and string writing.

The second movement, a vigorous moto perpetuo battles between triple and duple meter; starting with a bang, it unrelentingly paints the ultimate triumph of Joan on the battlefield. Yet a certain luminance permeates the militaristic tussles. The score blazes with rich brass flourishes, reminding one over and over of the astonishing fecundity of this composer’s vivid imaginación as it drives to an ultimately triumphant conclusion.

Colors and emotions converge in the third movement as Joan’s trial and ultimate fiery death at the stake transfigure her from soldier to saint. The music moves inexorably toward a powerful ending that then tapers to a soft yet disquietingly unresolved conclusion, recalling the question mark that Richard Strauss scored for the pizzicato bass fiddles at the end of Also Sprach Zarathustra.

Dello Joio’s Symphony is first-class. Gil Rose and his intrepid BMOP are due kudos for programming it and performing it so well.

The concert’s second half embraced Dello Joio’s second opera devoted to the story of Joan of Arc: The Trial at Rouen. At its 1956 television premiere the composer wrote: “The Trial at Rouen is not a version of my first opera, but is a completely new statement, both musically and dramatically; though the temptation to use the old material was great…”

Once again. we must thank Gil Rose for unearthing this show, for it is clearly an American opera of the first rank, with no excuse for its having lain dormant until its performance this evening. It is a full, rich, and demanding score, high on drama and characterization. At its core is the persecution of a seemingly innocent female at the hands of powerful and influential men, all too resonant with present day events. As such this opera appealed and spoke to us contemporary listeners in ways which were surprisingly telling and affecting.

The libretto, written by the composer, tells the tale of the imprisonment of Joan of Arc, her persecutions while awaiting trial, the trial itself, and the ultimate condemnation of Joan as a heretic by Pierre Cauchon, the French Bishop of Beauvais who became counselor of Henry the VI of England, a handy position from which to be Joan’s inquisitor and condemner. The opera is in two acts and occupies about an hour and 15 minutes, not a moment of it dull.

As Joan, soprano Heather Buck was alternately radiant and defiant with spot-on acting and gleaming tone. Only occasionally did Gil Rose’s enthusiasm with the orchestra cover her. When Stephen Powell, baritone, took the stage, robed in crimson as a prince of the Church, he almost stopped the show with his commanding evocation of Joan’s nemesis, Pierre Cauchon. His vocal range and tone were totally up to the challenges that his role required. He created a palpable, believable and impactful stage presence. Bravo!

Baritone Luke Scott robustly voiced Father Julien, the consoler of the imprisoned Joan. Scott brought appropriate grace and sympathy to the role. Ryan Stoll, bass-baritone, was believable as the threatening and repugnant jailer who tried unsuccessfully to assault Joan as she languished in her cell. Jeremy Ayres, tenor, sang tellingly as an English soldier, ruing his fate to be stationed in France so far from home and his lover’s warm embrace. From the balcony, Ethan Bremner, RaShaun Campbell, Joel Edwards, Andrew Miller, and Alexis Piñero made imposing and characterful inquisitioners. Mariah Wilson, Assistant Conductor and Chorus Master expertly prepared the small and energetic chorus.

Heather Buck and the orchestra (Kathy Wittman photo)

The Odyssey Opera Orchestra covered itself in glory, responding with one mind focused on Gil Rose’s incisive and inspiring leadership.

This was an extraordinary evening in the theater. 

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 37 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 45 years.                                               

View Comments (3)

  • This was a wonderful performance of a moving work. Mr. Ehrlich's review does it justice. Did anyone besides me feel the similarity of this opera's opening to the opening of "Tristan und Isolde," where a sailor (rather than a soldier) sings of his far-away love? I couldn't help thinking of "Frisch weht der Wind, der Heimat zu; mein Irisch Kind, wo weilest du?" A conscious echo, or just a coincidence? (Ah, there are no coincidences in classical music!)

  • I got hooked on classical music and opera when I was seven years old and have attended 1108 performances of opera as of my 72nd birthday, along with innumerable concerts. As a scenic and lighting designer in Boston for four plus decades I designed operas by many American composers, including a number of premieres. Never at any time did I encounter any music by Norman Dello Joio. Why? What were the music directors afraid of? As Mr. Ehrlich so accurately describes it, his music is of very high quality and eminently approachable without pandering to those who make a fetish of decrying what Benjamin Britten satirically referred to once as "hideous, horrible modern music."

    Boston is extremely fortunate to have Gil Rose expending his considerable energies in presenting great music and opera that is rarely encountered, in superbly cast and gorgeously played performances.

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