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Odyssey Opera Delivers Joan


Shura Baryshnikov as Joan (Kathy Wittman photo)

In the intimate and austere atmosphere of Sanders Theater, Odyssey Opera delivered a visually beautiful and acoustically radiant performance of Joan of Arc at the Stake on Saturday night as part of its season inspired by the visionary saint. Scored in 1935 by Arthur Honegger on a text by Paul Claudel, the work was inspired and commissioned by the celebrated Russian-born dancer/pioneer of symbolic expressiveness Ida Rubinstein, who incarnated Joan at the world premiere in Basel in 1938. Odyssey Opera chose to work with Dennis Arundell’s highly anglicized 1947 adaptation of the libretto, appropriating it to tell a new, uplifting story. In last night’s performance, we saw Joan delivered from the shackles of narrow contextualization and rendered vibrant and universal by dancer-choreographer Shura Baryshnikov. As though developing Ida Rubinstein’s own seminal ideas, Baryshnikov took the power of symbolic gesture to new heights. Odyssey Opera chose, in effect, to remain faithful, above all, to Claudel’s wish that Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher be accessible “to all times and to all hearts”.

This was clear from the opening Prologue, which was added in 1944 after WWII, and dedicated to Ida Rubinstein. Gil Rose led the large and color rich but never overpowering orchestra and the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium with an uncanny ability to shift shape and styles and exploit Honegger’s genre bashings.  With the forces bathed in brooding blue light, Baryshnikov-Joan entered in a simple white linen shift, wielding a sword in a ritualistic dance through which the saint’s fate was conveyed in its essential trajectory — from courage to victory to capture, trial and condemnation. The dance ended, as Joan tied symbolically to a horizontal stake, gazed upward at eternity — reminiscent in its solemn poignancy of Anselm Kiefer’s memorial to victims at the Louvre in Paris. Just as Honegger and Claudel had worked to fuse word and music together, Baryshnikov and the musicians fused sound and gesture together, to great effect. In the Prologue, the soprano Celeste Godin’s prayer for Hope to rise from the depths of darkness, delivered in a rich and pure voice, seemed to generate Joan’s calling from the inside of her body. Similarly, in Scene 1, a transcendent flute seemed to lift her hands up and pull her to her feet almost in spite of herself, signifying the power and mystery of her calling. The effect was reinforced by a beautifully sung Amen. In Scene 2, Brother Dominic, incarnated by Brandon Green, avoided the pitfall of “acting” and instead skillfully used rhythm and voice pitch to convey the symbolic dimension of his participation in the story.

In Scene 3 Estelle Lemire keyed and stroked the ondes Martenot to great effect, again fusing with Baryshnikov-Joan’s voice and gesture expressing “the fire that burns.” As the prop of a literal stake was shrewdly discarded, her gestures expanded the evocation of fiery agony universally to all charred bodies. We are not guilty of sending human beings to the stake – but what of Hiroshima? Vietnam?

Particularly successful, in my view, was Scene 4, in which Joan is “delivered to the Beasts,” evoking the martyrdom of early Christian saints. The jaunty music triggering sadistic impulses in the four beasts reminded me of Goya’s “Disasters of War” or of artist Leon Golub’s paintings of torture. Against this horrific tormenting of Joan, Frank Kelly’s Porcus erupted as a grotesque mime, all the more hideous in that he forced us to laugh. Rather than incarnate a corrupt prelate (Claudel’s French text), Kelly incarnated a figure closer to home: the unhinged, deluded, and utterly self-satisfied judge who turns the jury (picking members of the Harvard Radcliffe Collegium) into sheep. Baryshnikov-Joan’s resounding “No!” when asked to confess that she had received help from the devil, followed by the ass-clerk’s supine statement “She said yes!” proved particularly effective.

Death pointed a finger at Joan, and Death’s companion, Luxury, spat at Joan (Kathy Wittman photo)

Scene 6, in which Honegger/Claudel depict man-made history (as opposed to God’s providence) as the contingent effect of a game of cards, was also apt and visually memorable. Once again, the choreography reinforced Honegger’s mock-baroque ritornello, evoking automata sounding the hour on town belfries. Death pointed a finger at Joan, and Death’s companion, Luxury, looking like the women favored by Fox News, spat at Joan. The format of the Medieval Mystery play, which had originally inspired Ida Rubinstein, was both honored and put to new use. In Scene 8, which finds North (grain, bread) and South (grape, wine) reunited thanks to Joan’s rehabilitation of legitimate central authority (Claudel had a vision about this, which convinced him to agree to write the libretto), Baryshnikov-Joan danced with unbridled “popular” joy, mingling symbolically with townfolk and country folk in a burst of profane humanism. David Fry’s call to a higher, sacred realm dramatically overcame popular revelry: implicitly, the political story (divided France returned to communion, bread and wine) transformed into a more universal spiritual story (divided self returned to harmony, with our tribal instincts submitted to Justice.) The Premier Choir of the Boston’s Children’s Chorus (profane nature in its innocence) and the ending Cantus firmus (sacred nature, duty) were both superb — antipodal and moving. Soloists Ana Villalobos and Samantha Morrison deserve special notice. In the ensuing Scene 9, “Joan’s sword,” the Children’s Chorus again sang with moving eloquence, exploiting the Thomas Hardy flavor of Dennis Arundell’s adaptation of this scene, as though universalizing it by making it exquisitely local. “Lorraine” thus became symbolic of every cherished locality with its characteristic trees and weather. St. Marguerite (Sara Womble) and St. Catherine (Katherine Growdon) placed stereophonically in the audience in Tintoretto hues, defined the highpoint of Scene 9; appropriately lyrical their voices heard in the bells called Joan to her destiny.

The short extraordinary final scene tied an anguished Joan horizontally at the stake, unable to sing Trimazo, against a wave of tender strings. Suddenly a vision of Mary (Erica Petrocelli), more Fra Angelico than Tintoretto, high up and illuminated, clothed with the sky and stars, revived Joan spiritually by accepting her as “a pure flame.”

Concluding with “Joan of Arc in the Flames,” the symbolic register favored by Odyssey Opera succeeded in tying all of the many thematic strands together into a coherent ritualized and deeply human confrontation with death, connecting earth and sky, the here-and-now to eternity. With the choruses singing the words from St. Francis’s Canticle of Creation and Mary urging Joan “to trust the fire,” saints and sinners, nightingales and angels, even plants and stones, seemed to coalesce into Joan’s gentle decrescendo affirming God’s strength over evil, echoed and then finalized by the theme “There is no Greater Love” rippling from St. Margaret to the children’s voices to the low voices leading into a solemn cadence in D major, symbolic of cosmic redemption. A symbolic odyssey led by Joan-Shiva through realms of self-doubt, agony and joy, Odyssey Opera’s Joan of Arc at the purely-symbolic stake delivered a moving, memorable affirmation of human deliverance.

Related interview with Shura Baryshnikov HERE.

Anne Davenport is a scholar of early modern theology and philosophy. She has published books on medieval theories of infinity and Descartes. Her most recent article is on Atomism and providence in 17th-century England.

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