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Odyssey Opera Celebrates Sorcerer-Saint


A sepiafied Shura Baryshnikov  (Anna M. Maynard photo)

A 17-year-old peasant girl heard voices of Mary and God urging her to liberate the city of Orléans at the close of the Hundred Years’ War. The occupying English forces, being decidedly unamused, induced the Roman Catholic Inquisition to burn her at the stake for her heresy—in particular, for wearing pants. Since then, the eventually sainted Joan has been celebrated in art, music, literature and film. For generations, every French child had to memorize Les adieux de Jeanne by Peguy.

As the latest installment of its season celebrating Saint Joan, Odyssey Opera brings a semi-staged English-language production of Arthur Honegger’s dramatic 1938 oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake), also something of a bouillabaisse of musical and rhetorical styles. Gil Rose will direct a full orchestra along with Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum and the Premier Choir of the Boston Children’s Chorus. Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher runs one night only, February 17, 2018 at 8:00pm, at Sanders Theater. Tickets HERE.

Rose tells us that Paul Claudel’s dramatic text imagines the final moments of the martyr’s life and provides Honegger with space—between heaven and earth, past and present—where he mixes styles from the popular to the sublime. With colorful instrumentation including the saxophones, ondes Martenot, and choruses, his music is eclectic and inclusive, ranging from atonality to 1920s jazz, with military fanfares and Hollywood-like melodic sweeps punctuating the storyline throughout.” 

Vivien Schweitzer of the NY Times reminds us what was at stake when Honegger was writing: “The premiere of the first production of Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher, in 1938 in Basel, Switzerland, starred the actress Ida Rubinstein. French critics faulted the casting of a Russian-born Jew in the role of France’s heroine even though Honegger and Claudel wrote the work with Rubinstein in mind. It wasn’t the first time the French had taken issue with an outsider’s perspective on Joan: In 1928, French nationalists criticized the Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer for filming the 1928 silent “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” The prologue to Honegger’s oratorio, which begins with the chorus singing “Darkness! Darkness! And France was without form and void,” was added in 1944 to invoke the Nazi occupation.

Acclaimed actor/dancer Shura Baryshnikov promises to immerse herself into the dramatic spoken title role.  

FLE: There have been so many portrayals of Joan in all of the arts, that one wonders how you see her. Mellifluous and seductive like Sarah Bernhard or Ida Rubinstein? Simple and naïve like Falconetti and Jean Seberg? Triumphant on a horse? Perhaps all of the above since she is recollecting her life from some higher plane. Honnegger has stewed up such a bubbling bouillabaisse of musical styles, that one sometimes wonders how any Joan can contend with such powerful forces.

SB: In researching Honegger and Claudel — their collaboration — I have been interested in Claudel’s angle. He was more compelled by the origin of her faith, which is perhaps naïve, childlike. There is a complexity there because we know what she achieved militarily. If we see her only as a nationalist heroine, or over-feminize her as some kind of femme fatale, we’ve missed the paradoxical nature of someone with so little worldly experience affecting such great change. I’ve also played the role of Salome, and I’m feeling some parallels. We don’t know what to make of these young women who are discovering what their strength and influence on the world can be. We don’t know whether to categorize them as children or women. We don’t trust the space in-between, the multiplicity. We don’t know where to put them, but I also have to embrace what is on the page — Claudel’s representation. That is the Joan that I am playing. I want to trust the story that they are telling.

Are you memorizing the English translation of the oh so very incantory, melodic and erotic French? Do Claudel’s words feel pretentious at all? Does the sound of the English translation do justice to what Claudel wrote? The piece is so very French and so very melodramatic that the music of the speech is almost more important than the import of the words.

I am working with the English translation. Of course, we can easily be wooed by the sound of the French. It’s incredibly beautiful, but by presenting this in English, we are asserting that Claudel’s words matter; his point of view shapes this story and the representation of Joan. I want to attempt to tell that story as directly as possible, which I can only do in English to an English-speaking audience. I can still seek the breath and musicality of the French, of course. I am certainly aware of and challenged by that tension.

Have you heard any classic melodramas such as Liszt’s Lenore or Richard Strauss’s Enoch Arden? Can you channel Claude Rains? [Youtube version HERE] And do you know the Liszt’s Jeanne d’arc au Bucher? [HERE]

I now have heard both the melodramas you mentioned and Liszt’s Jeanne d’arc au Bucher. I think the difference is that Joan is not narrating in Honneger’s oratorio. She is within the story. This is an acting role, not a narration, nor is it sung, of course. As Gil Rose said to me on the phone the other day, this was written for an actor. I am leaning into that. 

Are you doing the staging? How much movement? I hope you won’t be wearing formal gown or a shift with a zipper (which Richard Dyer rued in a BSO performance in 1984). Ida Rubinstein, who premiered the role was a dancer/actress. Are you choreographing movements for yourself?

I will be self-directing the details of Joan’s movement and embodiment, but I will also have Gil Rose’s support. I hope to make as much use of the architecture as possible so that this will be living and breathing. Physicalizing the text will help me ground this character in time and space.  

I have not yet been costumed, but I would imagine since this is a semi-staged production that we will be seeking authenticity with the costuming. That said, we also must work to transport the audience and ask for their belief and imagination. I am a 36 year-old-woman without closely-shorn hair playing Joan. When we are audience to the staging of stories such as this one, we also have to want to believe and allow ourselves to be transported.

What about blocking for the rest of the cast?

I will be figuring out how to move this character through the events. That is the work that I am most versed in and comfortable with as a dancer and improviser. It is what I practice and teach: I work compositions in time and space. I do not expect to be blocking the rest of the cast, but I will certainly seek to create relationship with the other actor and singers. We’ll have to work collaboratively to stay in relationship or we won’t succeed in telling this story.

Trailer for another production.

What will it be like to work with a huge orchestra as well as singers and chorus? Presumably you will be miked.

I can honestly say, I don’t know. I haven’t done this before. I expect that it will be overwhelming in moments, incredibly motivating and catalyzing in others. There is going to be an unbelievable amount of energy and sound in the space. She will also have to be larger than life.

Alan Gilbert told NY Times readers, “The message is universal: the message of resistance and of standing up for what’s right.” Joan “was a violent person who happens to be naïve,” he added. “It’s complex. I wouldn’t say that she’s a totally sympathetic character, and what motivates her might be misplaced. But those levels of complexity make it interesting.”

Does this work, written during the German occupation of France, have anything to say to the world today?

She became a pawn in a game of political and military force. We need our hero in a time of crisis, but we also need our scapegoat. In Claudel’s text, Brother Dominic says: “You’ve come to this by the working-out of a game of cards mad king invented.” If we localize blame, we all can take less responsibility, right? If we associate one with the Devil, the rest of us are absolved.   

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