Let’s say it straight away: yes, Joan was naked. Yes, she was subjected to a funeral rite which is the opposite of all the historical palaver: burial. Yes, the aspect of cross-dressing was underlined, as well as the construction of her persona by inverting it, making her appear, if not in giving birth to it, as a male body. The riot police were to be seen surrounding the colonnade of the opera house during the performances which will take their place in the history of stagings of Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher(“Joan of Arc at the stake”) by the force of their interpretive, visual and aesthetic ideas, regardless of any views of the extremists who threatened the show, as they’ve had to do for Romeo Castellucci’s other dramatic readings, adjudged to be blasphemous.

When the curtain goes up, astonishment: nothing mediaeval, not a sniff of mystery. The perfectly realistic and profane set shows the classroom of a girls’ school being gaily and noisily vacated by its young occupants, all dressed in blue, wearing pumps and white stockings, under the supervision of a teacher dressed in the modest clothing of the France of yesteryear. Soon, we see the characteristic slow pace of Castellucci’s stagings; the androgynous factotum, concierge or cleaner sets about tidying, cleaning and emptying the room, with engaging nonchalance and a particular lack of efficiency.

With each motion, the audience gradually understands more clearly that this man is going off the rails: soon, the tables and chairs are no longer neatly stacked but are thrown into the adjacent corridor, with no obvious intent but with ever increasing fury. The psychological portrait starts here – still without music, all we hear is the clatter of the chairs, the sound of a failing neon lamp. From being contemplative and distant, the staging becomes narrative and explicit: the rhythm accelerates and the noises reinforce each other: we understand that the concierge, who has been ripping out maps and blackboards and has just barricaded the door, has lapped into a furious insanity from which we can anticipate the fatal outcome: the neon lamp is extinguished; the orchestra begins, majestic and lugubrious; the choir reveals its darkness, we understand how the voices are mixed inside Joan’s head, with a delirious breakdown.

As well as digging into the ground this classroom (the training ground for republican myths) and ripping apart all its layers until you can touch the earth underneath the flooring, the straw isolation and the stones, the concierge wraps himself in women’s garb, garlands himself with ivy, daubs his face in green and mounts a broomstick, galoping around the room in archetypal witch style, illustrating the point of his spoken role: “Heretic! Witch! Apostate! … Am I really all those things?” The metamorphoses are many, the images are strong. Carrying an enormous sword on her shoulder, Joan relives the Calvary. Soon unclothed, her tawdry rags removed, Joan reveals a chaste nudity, which is not an end in itself, but the logical and radical consequence of her madness, which the soft light treats respectfully and sensitively, just as the stage directions and dramaturgy, whereby Joan retreats towards the rear of the stage and is dressed once more by means of body painting.

Suddenly, the scene changes: the classroom walls are replaced by white drapes, whose symbolism oscillates between the cell of a psychiatric ward and the tapestry of a mediaeval castle, thanks to the giant initials projected onto them. This ambiguity is everywhere, as in the imagery on the white cloth in which Joan is draped: unfolded, it clearly displays a cross, but the brownish colour suggests excrement. A tragic, burlesque epic takes place when Joan mounts and works on a dead horse, but is this from obstinacy in her divine mission or from sexual excitement? Romeo Castellucci’s staging and Piersandra Di Matteo’s dramaturgy seem precisely to shed light on the range and complexity of Paul Claudel’s libretto, at the same time analytic, allegorical, grotesque, epic and burlesque, mediaeval and modern. And the grave that Joan digs for herself with her own hands, and into which her body finally disappears, also encloses innumerable misappropriations by history books and various ideologies.

In the face of such a forceful staging,  the musical element, without being relegated to second place (may Kazushi Ono’s sensitive and expressive conducting preserve us from that), is heard but not seen: the singers are banished to corridors, from which the voices of soloists, choir and children’s choir are transmitted: they only appear in costume to take their bows. The quality is excellent: obvious standouts are the solo soprano (Ilse Eerens, light and sparkling), the bass-baritone of Paul-Henry Vila (Second Herald), the solo child’s voice. The choruses throw themselves fully into this difficult score, although the precision and diversity of the tenors are sometimes compromised.

Let’s also mention the voice – spoken, calming, sensitive and melodious – of Denis Polyadès as Brother Dominic, as well as the voice of the orchestral soloists like the flutes or the saxophones, as well as the voice – deliberately raucous, desperate, insane – of Audrey Bonnet, the 21st century Joan, who, by her superb performance, allows us to discover the spirituality of the realism and of the bareness.

Translated from French by David Karlin