Joan of Arc, the heroic figure fabled to have ended France's feudal system, is often depicted as a lionhearted mercenary who defies authority and fearlessly leads an army on behalf of the "holy kingdom of France"; however, Arthur Honegger and Paul Claudel conceived a very different side of Joan in 1933 — a human child without the armor of a virtuous warrior. Honegger and Claudel's dramatic oratorio Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher highlights the absurdity of her accusations amidst the corrupt political climate surrounding the martyr's life. The characters are often surreal interpretations of historic figures who rely on symbolic language to embody the biographical tale poetically rather than literally. Academy Award-winning actor Marion Cotillard's portrayal of Joan of Arc was curious, exultant, yet unflinching; Cotillard depicted the child in Joan, and alongside Alan Gilbert and the musicians of the New York Philharmonic, she headlined a whimsical yet thoughtful account of the Maid of Orleans.

Marion Cotillard and Éric Génovèse © Chris Lee
Marion Cotillard and Éric Génovèse
© Chris Lee

The performance began with a low chant-like rumble from the contrabassoon, echoed by the chorus (“France was without form and void”). The New York Choral Artists were dexterous and attentive, quickly responding to Gilbert's gestures to adjust dynamic balance. The actors had adequate amplification as to not be drowned out by the orchestra, and in general, the balance was perfectly molded to accommodate the space. Joan's entrance was not met with triumphant accolade; instead, Cotillard strangely circumnavigated the semicircular ring around the orchestra before appearing in front of the stake. Immediately following the Prologue, Voices from Heaven rained from the sky in the form of saxophones, and Éric Génovèse, who played Brother Dominique, entered to spark a curiosity in Joan and to act as the “white rabbit”, if you will, as he opened the Book that transported Joan on a phantasmagorical escapade.

Beasts filled the stage as the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, dressed as sheep, festively frolicking around Joan in bright colors. As a whole, the chorus sang Honegger's unusually-placed syllables with well-rehearsed care, but neither of the two child soprano soloists sounded confident on their entrances. The beast costumes, cartoonish and childlike in contrast to the simple, white robes of Joan and chorus, gave the impression that they were made from recycled puppets. Tenor Thomas Blondelle expounded on the idiotic part of Porcus by emphasizing the consonant sounds of each odd Latin syllable. Honegger's interest in experimental orchestration not only reflected in the saxophone writing, but also in the use of the ondes martenot, an electronic instrument invented only a few years before the oratorio was composed. The instrument’s sound is similar to that of a theremin with wavering notes produced through oscillating forces, and this effect accented the part of Christian Gonon’s donkey.

Marion Cotillard © Chris Lee
Marion Cotillard
© Chris Lee
Gonon, also a narrator and several other roles, was the comedic center of the production, bringing a sense of French parody and satire in a push to reconstruct the story as a farce. In Scene VI: The Kings, or The Invention of the Game of Cards, Gonon’s character explained a metaphorical card game where four kings changed places while four queens stayed in the same place, one king being death and the four queens being Lust, Pride, Avarice, and Stupidity. Here, Honegger employed one of the earliest instances of a prepared piano by placing a metal bar on the strings inside two pianos to create a sound similar to a harpsichord. The scene attempted to explain the political surroundings of France during the time, but the staging in this particular scene by De Bellescize was ineffective in its awkward arrangement and fruitless card-shuffling sound effects. The scene itself didn’t really leave the witness feeling any satisfaction as it quickly dissolves in order to introduce Catherine and Marguerite. In any case, the female vocal soloists Simone Osborne (Marguerite), Faith Sherman (Catherine), and Erin Morley (the virgin) all sang with dramatic fortitude that always reminded the audience of Joan’s forthcoming incineration.

The finale was incredibly well-executed by the whole ensemble. As Joan prepared for her imminent demise, she spoke with the Virgin Mary and chorus (“I too shall be the pretty red flame”) and a plasmatic red light engulfed the auditorium while the music reached a climax. Suddenly, the lights faded to a blueish white as Joan entered martyrdom, united with the voices who encouraged her along the journey. As the lights dimmed to shadows under a nightingale’s song played by a solo flute, each member of the chorus and orchestra held a candle in the silent darkness, left only with the words of the epilogue: “Greater love hath no man than to give his life for those he cherishes.”

****1