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Ioanna d’Arcova at Washington National Opera

This is a follow-up to this previous post on this opera.

Ambition alone, even a genius's ambition, does not necessarily translate into unmitigated success. Tchaikovsky's The Maid of Orleans, said to be his most ambitious opera, is such a case. Russian peasantry roaming the French countryside: that is his opera in a nutshell. At the risk of displaying my ignorance and dislike of opera again (such were some responses to my Nabucco posting), the Maid is uneven, dramatically unconvincing, and save for a beautiful first act and the great love duet of Joan and Lionel, conspicuously missing the good tunes we expect from Tchaikovsky. In short: not a terribly fine work. Especially not so when presented in a production as static as I never have seen, nor am likely ever to see again.

The production merits mentioning first, for it was outstanding, alas negatively. It essentially relied on two ideas, neither of them novel, both overused. Idea No. 1 was the use of light fabric curtains, draped across the entire stage, then falling down to the stage, then picked up, dragged around, and carried off. Upon first use in the overture, the billowing curtain falling down—first when suspended, then when released—was a visual treat. The second time it was still impressive, if less so. The third, fourth, and fifth times this element was employed, it became more and more meaningless. Occasions six, seven, eight, nine, and finally ten were comically repetitive. A spin of the curtain theme was the idea to dress the chorus (peasants, minstrels, angels, "fire," etc.) in bedsheet chain gangs of six or eight each. ("One musical body with many heads" was the idea behind it.) Add to that the requisite chorus of any self-respecting Russian opera of "Slava, slava" (Glory, glory), and the third act scene of "curtain—bed-sheet—slava-slava" was laugh-out-loud funny.

Still, should we have been thankful to those twenty instances of free-flowing curtains everywhere? At least they did something that no one and nothing else did: move. In the process of trying to "present the opera in the style of great oratorio" (so says the director), whatever life left in the work was sucked out by stiff figures that marched to their designated location, sang their part and remained standing there, until the prescribed exit. The vocally impressive Archbishop of Feodor Kuznetsoz, a tall and lanky figure, stuck out especially and at times the whole effort reminded me of a school play where nine-year-old Abraham Lincolns walk out on stage and, slightly bent back, declaim the Gettysburg address to parents struggling to suspend their disbelief.

Harsh? Don't take my word for it, but instead director Lamberto Pugelli's, whom I quote from the program notes: "As a director, it thus seemed pointless to spend too much time worrying about choreography and set design." Yes, sir, and it shows.

Idea No. 2 was the use of images superimposed on the falling curtains and the back walls. That created some very fine effects and moods but also ran out of steam. Some images were oddly truncated, perhaps in an imitation of film, and sometimes, as in the interminable second act, they did not make any easily discernable sense. The entire production, which could fit into two suitcases, was not just slight on material but also creativity and imagination. That a "skimpy" and portable production does not have to be such a sad compromise was proven by the controversial but exhilarating set of the Kirov's Boris Godunov.

The program notes inform us that "of all Tchaikovsky's ten operas, none show a stronger Western orientation than The Maid of Orleans." I admit to never having seen or heard The Voyevoda, Undine, The Oprichnik, Kuznets Vakula, and Charodeyka, but I can assure anyone that even Mazeppa is more Western than the Maid. The Meyerbeer-like grand setting of a German text does not make the result Western. The music and the entire feel of it is Russian, from the Czar Charles VII to the addition of a love story for Jean that eventually proves her downfall.

What made the night worth spending at the Opera, however, was the singing that ranged from fine to excellent. Special mention must go to Maïra Kerey's Agnes Sorel. Stunning clarity and beauty of voice have me hope that opera lovers outside of her native Kazakhstan will see her more often. Corey Evan Rotz marvelously performed Raymond, especially in the third act and was by far the better of only two tenors on the stage. The other one, Victor Lutsiuk as Charles VII, had to deal with one of the most unsympathetic, unthankful roles in opera: neither good nor evil but merely pathetic. He made the best of it with his shuffling walk and cute little gestures that lightened the mood. The army of baritones and basses was satisfying throughout. Vladimir Moroz as Dunois, Evgeny Nikitin as Thibaut d'Arc, and Sergei Leiferkus as Lionel especially so.

And then, of course, there was Mirella Freni. Her performance of Joan, especially as concerns all notes in the upper register, would have been an achievement for any soprano. But having had a career lasting many more years than most of her colleagues have lived, playing a 17-year old at 71, it was a staggering achievement. Her aria at the end of Act I and her duet with Lionel in Act IV were particular highlights. Which brings up the question of whether this production is worth attending.

If you are planing to go to only one opera this season, skip the Maid of Orleans and see The Magic Flute or Samson et Dalila instead. But if it isn't a matter of "either/or," even a mediocre Maid is worth seeing when it is likely your only chance to see this opera live and possibly your last opportunity to hear Mirella Freni on stage. Chances do to so are on April 3rd, 5th, 8th, and 11th. (Check the Washington National Opera's Web site to see when and if Maestra Freni is performing.)

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