It’s an ambitious choice, a straight concert staging of a lesser-known three-hour Russian opera, without surtitles, especially as Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans has room for four acts’ worth of pageantry: battle scenes, gypsies, angels, minstrels, dancing dwarves, not to mention auto-da-fé.
Yes, the Grand Théâtre’s performance places the music centre stage; that cannot be faulted. Orleanskaya deva is a Russian take on the French ‘grand opéra’ and Tchaikovsky deploys the lavish idiom of the form flawlessly. His libretto, based on Schiller, Mermet and Barbier – Romantic to the core – is a little sprawling, but perfectly effective. His strengths as a composer shine: his mastery of polyphony, the range of orchestral expression deployed straight from the overture, with its swelling chromatic string octaves, bucolic strings and sparkling cymbals. The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande is on fine form as ever, seemingly relishing the melodrama, the sensitivity trembling at the edge of sentimentality, the notes of originality in orchestration and timbre – the bell, the organ, the harp. Later on, it gets even better, culminating in a dramatic pyre scene: stabbing brass, roaring choral crowd, a tremendous finale.
Except of course, there is no pyre, and there is no crowd. The whole performance felt like it was missing its core, its story. Where are the monks, the buffoons, the angels, the executioners? Where are the dancing clowns? Most crucially, the story of Joan of Arc is a story of transformation: from innocent country girl to military leader and advisor to the King of France, from troubled soul dealing with accusations of witchcraft to martyr at the hands of the Catholic church. In this version, she’s a passionate lover as well! It’s a lot to withhold from a performance. I’d be willing to put my own frustrations down to my love for being swept up in narrative, were it not for the fact that the parterre was peppered with empty seats after the entr'acte.
A shame, as the cast was a strong one. It’s difficult to speak ill of Ksenia Dudnikova’s Joan. Her voice is smooth and strong, and although it lacks a little precision in the higher range, in the low, it reveals a richness, a tannin, that unmistakeable trademark of the true mezzo-soprano. Her solo pieces are rock solid: her prophetic aria "Brother and friends" and the folksong-like "Farewell to you, hills" were immaculately delivered. But there was no spark to her presence onstage, no movement but occasional sighs.
It is an oddity of Tchaikovsky’s era that this story about a religious martyr has been made into a romantic melodrama about filial duty and the irresistible passions of the heart, yet the moments of romance are very lovely. Lionel and Joan’s duet, with its melodic opening figures and angular harmonic ending, is a beautiful piece, and Dudnikova and Boris Pinkhasovich carried it off with aplomb, if without much emotion. (The awkward hug that serves to represent their moment of ‘rapture’ in the forest was a nadir of the evening.)
Meanwhile, Mary Feminear’s interpretation of Agnès was the standout performance, not least because she was the most expressive in expression and gesture of anyone onstage. Her voice is rich and bright, and she made magic with her long notes, spinning them out, transforming them, turning them to gold. Her duet with the King was breathtaking – touched with real emotion, and sung looking at each other. For this alone, as well as for his nonchalantly unleashed falsetto, Migran Agadzhanyan gets high marks as Charles VII, his oboe-like tenor fitting the role of the troubled king perfectly. Thibaut, the father – the villain in this version of the story – is a fabulous role, rich with menace and recitativo, and it fits Alexey Tikhomirov like a glove. He embodies the Platonic idea of a Russian bass voice; huge, warm, stentorian. Roman Burdenko, as Captain Dunois, is also excellent, with a strong, resonant baritone.
I’m not against stripping down a performance in principle, and there are some distinct advantages to the concept. For one, leaving the lights on meant that we were at least able to read what was going on in the performance notes. Secondly, the choir were able to stand proudly centre-stage, the Choeur du Grand Théâtre being the heart and soul of this production, Sophoclean in unison, their powerful and coherent sound filling Victoria Hall right up to its gilded rafters. Joan’s hymn "Almighty Ruler" was particularly memorable, with masterful choral fortepianos and a stunning a cappella tutti finale.
Dmitri Jurowski was also far more visible than usual, freed from the pit, his engaged and dynamic conducting on show – and easier to blame for the few rushed transitions and blurry endings. That said, a little messiness in ensemble scenes is something I’ll quite gladly accept in exchange for an energetic, passionate performance – something that the soloists seemed far more wary of providing than the orchestra and choir.
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