CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


Joan of Arc, Schiller, Russian, Tchaikovsky

Other Reviews

Tim Smith, Freni remarkable as Joan of Arc (Baltimore Sun, March 28)

Jens F. Laurson, La Freni: She's Got It Maid! (Ionarts, March 30)

Kate Wingfield, Operatic Wonder (Metro Weekly, March 31)

Jens F. Laurson, Ioanna d'Arcova at Washington National Opera (Ionarts, April 2)
One of the things that makes opera so much fun intellectually is the chance to see how the sequence of transformations listed in the title of this post, for example, will work out. You take one of the most sacred legends of French history, reimagined in German by Friedrich Schiller (Die Jungfrau von Orléans), translated into Russian by Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky, and made into a libretto by Tchaikovsky himself—based partially on French libretti Jules Barbier (Jeanne d'Arc, from 1877, with Charles Gounod) and Auguste Mermet (for his own opera Jeanne d'Arc, from 1876)—who made it into his opera Orleanskaya Deva (Maid of Orleans). It could get stranger only if someone makes it into an American-style musical (à la Rent) and calls it (thank you, Simpsons!) Joan!.

As Jens has noted in his review (and preview), the Washington National Opera production of Tchaikovsky's The Maid of Orleans marks the return of veteran soprano Mirella Freni to the stage of the Kennedy Center Opera House. This was a thrill for me, because it brought back memories of my formative experience with live opera, which goes back to my first ever trip to Manhattan, as an undergraduate music major on spring break in 1990. One morning, I showed up at the Metropolitan Opera—such a Midwestern rube!—expecting to buy a ticket to see one of them real live operas.

This production of the opera, by Italian director Lamberto Puggelli, comes to Washington from the Teatro Regio di Torino, where it was first staged in the summer of 2002. (Other than La Freni, Viktor Lutsiuk as King Charles VII, and conductor Stefano Ranzani, the musical staff is completely different, of course.) There is no point in repeating the criticism Jens had for the overuse of diaphanous veils (sets and costumes by Luisa Spinatelli), with which I agree, except to add that the frequency by which our sightline and ability to hear the singers was impeded by these large veils was beyond annoying. Hiding singers behind a translucent scrim worked beautifully when all of the voices criticizing and questioning Joan were caught behind it.

It was even more effective as a way to create an otherworldly look and sound for the chorus of angels in the radiant conclusion to Act I, with upcoming soprano Maria Jooste as the lead Voice from the Choir. (I have previously mentioned the NPR piece on this former member of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program at the WNO.) The rest of the time, I mostly wished that I had the few extra degrees of dynamic strength from the singers that those scrims were dampening. (Tim Smith said that, with the "couple million yards of fabric," the opera might be called "The Maid of Orlon.") It also bothered me that the characters were continually picking up swaths of the cloth and wrapping themselves in it. At times, the various choruses were costumed in one large swath of cloth.

Musically, the performance was very strong, beginning of course with La Freni's still remarkably expressive voice. Kazakhstanian soprano Maïra Kerey was a delight as Agnès Sorel, the mistress of Charles VII. Also impressive were the deeply resonant bass Feodor Kuznetsov as the Archbishop (whose outrageously tall miter in the last act was a hoot) and Ukrainian tenor Viktor Lutsiuk as the smarmy Charles VII. This opera certainly deserves to be performed more than it is, although its length (three hours, and that's without the ballet) as a grand opera probably gives companies pause. I also found the finale of Joan's execution curiously unsatisfying. I think Tchaikovsky missed a golden opportunity for one of the great soprano scenas of all time with Joan at the stake: wouldn't this be the right time for some—please excuse the pun—vocal pyrotechnics?

The Maid of Orleans, but not this production, will be on the calendar next season at San Francisco Opera. Mirella Freni will return to the Met on May 15, to sing a gala concert, with James Levine, on the 50th anniversary of her stage début. Only two performances in Washington remain, on April 8 and 11.


Anonymous said...

Mirella Freni è senza dubbio il più grande soprano del secondo dopoguerra. sempre grande e smpre capace di rinnovarsi, dai ruoli belcantistici (Mozart, Donizetti, Bellini), ai grandi ruoli drammatici verdiani fino ai ruoli del grande repertorio russo.

Anonymous said...

Maid of Orleans is available here online free