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Dello Joio’s Joan Comes to Life and Death


Heather Buck as Joan (Kathy Wittman photo)

Joan of Arc has fascinated writers from Shakespeare to Schiller to Shaw. Composers too, as Odyssey Opera has been demonstrating. No composer seems to have become more caught up in her than Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008), who composed two complete operas, as well as a substantial symphonic work on the music of the first opera, and another chamber opera arrangement of it to accompany dance.

Dello Joio’s second opera on Joan of Arc, composed to his own libretto, was commissioned by NBC during the happy period when the network regularly mounted operas, both classics and new. It was this second opera that Odyssey performed, under the direction of Gil Rose, on Friday night in a semistaged concert performance at Jordan Hall, evidently the first time the entire score has been performed since a mounting at the New York City Opera in the late 1950s. Parts of it were trimmed in the broadcast, possibly to meet the time structures of the network. Because the opera is short, less than 90 minutes, and was played in a single act without intermission, Rose preceded it with a symphonic work that Dello Joio had created from his earlier Joan of Arc opera.

A 1948 film in which Ingrid Bergman played the part of Joan inspired Dello Joio to write the Triumph of St. Joan, to a libretto by Joseph Machlis, while the composer was teaching at Sarah Lawrence. There it received an amateur performance, but was never mounted professionally. Dello Joio reused sections of the score for a three-movement Triumph of St. Joan Symphony. It was performed and recorded by the Louisville Symphony in 1951 with choreography by Martha Graham. Though labeled a symphony, the attractive, dramatic work strikes one more as a suite depicting the character in three guises: The Maid, The Warrior, The Saint.

The 25-minute score contains a range of colorful music that can easily be heard as reflecting passages in her dramatic short life, even without being broken into specific sections. The BMOP players provided everything from the delicate flute and oboe solos that instantly suggest the maid of Orleans as a young girl, before her visions lead her to direct an army into battle. The military section is loud and brassy, heavily punctuated by drums and other percussion. Impressions of galloping horses and massive trumpet fanfares add to the excitement. The final movement suggests the maid waiting in her prison cell, communing with her “voices”, before the full orchestra builds to a massive climax, probably intended to suggest the trial. Some of the score makes use of chantlike elements, heightening the liturgical participation in Joan’s trial and execution. Under Rose’s direction, the orchestra established the dramatic mood of the evening with this effective work. When not bright and brassy, the score is darkly rich.

After intermission the Jordan Hall stage was somewhat reset, the orchestral players moved into a triangle with the conductor at the point and the instrumentalists spreading out to the rear. This made possible two sections of the stage where the singers, in costume, could play. Down right was the palace, including the scene of judgment that forms the dramatic finale of the work; down left a prison cell with nothing but a cot for Joan.

The Trial at Rouen is a brief opera, its scenes short and to the point. The five principal singers for the most part are onstage alone or with one other character. On this occasion, the choruses were offstage, or grouped in a back corner, or in one of the balconies, depending on whether they were monks, the populace, or inquisitors. (Only the lasts, in the balcony, were costumed.)

The soloists sang monologues or expositional dialogue with little physical action. As a result the opera presented like Medieval liturgical performance, with sung text, and some specific actions, but with the drama generated mostly by the score. (This is not to discount the attempted rape of Joan in her cell, which in the context was particularly shocking.)

Julius Rudel mounted Dello Joio’s work at the New York City Opera, with slight expansions, soon after the TV broadcast. One of these, evidently drawn from the earlier opera, is the opening aria sung by a young homesick English soldier, fighting on the side of the Burgundians against the forces of the French king. It subtly suggests the political complexity of the time, although its main purpose is to provide a lyrical opening that gives the audience useful information about what was going on. This role was elegantly taken by the young Jeremy Ayres Fisher.

He is joined by Father Julien, a sympathetic priest, who makes clear that he hopes Joan will not be put to death. (The most important way that she can save herself is to put on a dress, since the Burgudian bishop maintains that the Bible considers a woman wearing men’s clothing to be a sinful abomination.) Luke Scott played the warm priest.

Of all the men who are determined to control Joan, the most powerful is the Bishop Pierre Cauchon, sung by baritone Stephen Powell, making his debut with Odyssey. He was absolutely splendid vocally and also with the intense, unyielding focus that Joan confess and yield to the demand that she dress like a woman. Whenever the two of them measure off, sparks fly.

An important small part is the jailer, who attempts to rape Joan (an act prevented by the arrival of Father Julien). Tall and forceful, the young Ryan Stoll gave no respect whatever to the imprisoned girl and her faith.

Stephen Powell as Bishop Pierre Cauchon (Kathy Wittman photo)

The important character is Joan, a young woman trapped in a man’s world, where she cannot employ strength of the kind that her opponents understand (although already at 19 she has accomplished remarkable feats that seem impossible to explain). But it is the courage and steadfastness she shows after her capture that is the real subject of this opera. Heather Buck makes a sensational Joan. She comes across as the young and physically slight maiden from the country who somehow stands up to every kind of psychological or physical threat from Cochon as well as warm, hopeful pleading from Father Julien. Viewers who have seen and heard Buck as the Maid in Ades’s Powder Her Face in Boston in 2003 (in BMOP’s Opera Unlimited Festival, directed by Gil Rose) will not have forgotten her extraordinary vocal and dramatic performance, playing a half-dozen diverse characters), or in the more recent performance of the solo role in Argento’s Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night (a recording of the Odyssey Opera production will be released this month). As Joan, Buck combines a youthful, even boyish physique with the various aspects of her girlhood: sensitivity to the sounds of nature around her, a continuing spirit of hope, terror of the threatened death by fire. By voice and gesture, she evokes each of these sides of Joan’s personality, remaining strong to the very end, and then the fire is lit, and in the final bars she stands, frozen, allowing the lights and the orchestra to carry flaming death to her.

Although composed some 70 years ago and drawing on the event centuries prior, Dello Joio’s opera felt particularly timely when our media are filled with reports of the ways men in power mistreat women, especially those finding power of their own, and try to reduce them to wearing nothing but the allowable form of dress, along with prescribed behavior.

As regulars expect, the BMOP orchestra played beautifully. The score, by this distinguished American composer of the middle of the 20th century, contains suggestions of Gregorian chant (for setting the period) with elements of Italianate vocalism (a basic element of Dello Joio’s work), the darkly resonant coloration leading to an end in a brilliant vision.

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.

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