“I tried hard to be accessible to the man in the street while at the same time keeping the musician interested,” Arthur Honegger said of Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake). This powerful, semi-staged version of his oratorio/mystery play at the Concertgebouw proved how eminently he achieved his goal. Conductor Stéphane Denève led the unstintingly involved performance by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and their guest artists.

Stéphane Denève © SWR | Villa Berg
Stéphane Denève
© SWR | Villa Berg

Paul Claudel’s poetic libretto assumes that the audience is familiar with Joan the Maid’s biography. (The programme booklet contained a useful historical summary.) It begins in 1431, with Joan already tied to the stake, about to be burned alive. Holy voices had impelled her to lead the French army to victory against the English, who then ruled a large portion of France. Betrayed by a faction of pro-English noblemen, she has been condemned as both witch and heretic and now revisits episodes from her past. Honegger finished his “dramatic oratorio” in 1935, but he added a Prologue in 1944 that draws an analogy between Joan’s France, riven by the Hundred Years’ War, and Nazi-occupied France. “Darkness!...All France was without form and void”. From the deep echoes of the chorus a soprano solo raises her plea with the words of Psalm 130, De profundis (Out of the depths). Joan, who was sainted in 1920, is the sacrificial lamb that unifies and heals the nation.

Honegger’s score is a tapestry of contrasting moods. The sublime follows the satirical; earthly songs are sung in counterpoint to divine chants. The tripping piano rhythms to which kings play an absurdist, political card game, for example, make way for fateful bells that conjure up the insistent voices. Orchestral imitation and sound effects abound. Most conspicuous are the eerie, electronic wails of the ondes martenot, mimicking, among others, a dog and the rising flames. The RCO under Denève played with its characteristic vivid colouring, loose-limbed in the filmy accompaniment of the soloists and noble in the ensembles. The brass fulfilled their prominent role splendidly, supplying animal yowls and burnished royal fanfares.

A distinctive feature of the work is that actors play the two main characters, Jeanne and Frère Dominique. The founder of the Dominican order acts as a kind of spirit guide in extremis, providing the narrative by reading Jeanne’s life story to her. It was a great idea by director Caecilia Thunnissen to use the organ that forms the backdrop of the stage as the stake. Judith Chemla as Jeanne climbed up it before the initial chords and stayed there until the end, when the organ was lit up in flame-red. Dressed in a silvery white trouser suit, Chemla radiated the tenacious conviction of youth and dominated the stage with her bell-like voice. Her martyrdom combined Jeanne’s human fear and transfigurative ecstasy in the most natural way. Jean-Claude Drouot was deeply touching as Frère Dominique, close to despair at the injustice of Jeanne’s sentence, and deferential to her guileless piety. Christian Gonon and Adrien Gamba-Gontard were also fine in the secondary spoken roles. Gonon brayed magnificently as the Donkey, the clerk of the satirical animal court. With Gamba-Gontard, he formed the comic but affecting couple Heurtebise and his wife, the Mother of Barrels, symbolising the divided North (bread) and South (wine) of France.

The singers’ acting was just as eloquent. Sonorous bass Steven Humes sang a variety of supporting roles. Even without wearing a pig’s head, tenor Jean-Noël Briend would have been piercingly porcine as Porcus, a parody of Jeanne’s enemy Bishop Cauchon, whose name is a homonym for cochon, French for pig. The wonderful Rotterdam Symphony Chorus must be commended not only for the sumptuous ensembles and sparkling folk songs, but also for the deftness with which they turned themselves into bleating sheep or a mob salivating at the prospect of a public burning. Even the shiny-toned children of the Nationaal Kinderkoor, who sang such a tender May song, were roped into the action with the few, efficacious props. The celestial voices were opulently cast.

The deep velvet soprano of Christine Goerke as Saint Margaret was layered onto the deeper, dark mezzo-soprano of Judit Kutasi as Saint Catherine. Claire de Sévigné’s luminescent soprano was the soaring voice of the Virgin. After singing from the side balconies, they came onstage for the last scene, draped in pale blue tulle stoles. One doesn’t need faith to be drawn in by the brilliance of a Giotto fresco, nor to be transported by Honegger’s recreation of Jeanne’s death, as she leaves the agony of the fire and ascends into heaven. When performed with such loving intensity, the finale of Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher can really reveal a glimpse of paradise.

*****