The short life and terrifying death of Joan of Arc are the subject of Arthur Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher ("Joan of Arc at the Stake"), a curious masterpiece of an oratorio dating from 1938. The nearly-forgotten work received a well-deserved resurrection by Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Saturday night.

Marin Alsop, © Grant Leighton
Marin Alsop,
© Grant Leighton

Paul Claudel’s libretto begins at the moment before Joan’s death, and then moves backwards through her condemnation and military victory, finally returning to the stake at the end. The musical setting is unique: Joan and most of the other characters do not sing but speak, both over the music and between numbers. Joan’s visions, however, are sung by several vocal soloists. The chorus, portraying the people of France, plays a large role. Even the orchestra, including prominent roles for the early electronic instrument the ondes Martenot (a producer of swooping glissandi) and a large saxophone section, is unusual. Honegger’s music goes from choral monumentalism to evocations of jazz.

The work’s opening paraphrases from Genesis, the chorus darkly lamenting a divided France (this movement was added later to deliberately allude to the World-War-II-era Occupation as well as the Hundred Years’ War of Joan’s time). A solo soprano’s prayer cuts through the harmonic murkiness, and the narrator introduces the story of Joan in spoken French. Brother Dominic, Joan’s confessor, will read to her the story of her life, which we now witness. The scenes are alternately solemn, ethereal, and ridiculous. There is a whole menagerie of animals - the chorus condemning Joan as a flock of baa-ing sheep, a corrupt bishop, a pig. The ondes Martenot whoops with the barking dogs, accusing Joan. But Joan’s proclamations of faith are solemn and steadfast. The most memorable moment is the eighth scene, beginning happily with choral folksong and a royal procession, until the chorus rapidly turns against Joan and the music collapses into atonalism.

As Joan, actress Caroline Dhavernas was stoic and forceful, declaiming in a resonant voice. She emphasized less Joan’s mysticism than her utter conviction and drive, her repeated cries of “J’iriai!” and “Je vas!” ("I will go!" "I am going!") reaching a manic intensity. While James Robinson was credited as stage director (and surely worked on the spoken sections of the work), the only staging was a series of canny lighting changes. While this added to the atmosphere, calling it even semi-staged is an overstatement. Perhaps this was because there was almost no stage space remaining; the work requires enormous performing forces. The Baltimore Symphony was joined by a very large amalgamated chorus from Morgan State University, the Concert Artists of Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University, and the Peabody Institute (joined also by the Peabody Children’s Chorus).

Alsop proved adept at coordinating these crowds and shaping the music on a large scale, with clearly defined shifts of mood and texture and perfectly timed climaxes. However, the smaller details sometimes eluded this performance, mostly due to balance issues. The Baltimore Symphony’s bright, secure brass section sounded out strongly, but the rest of the orchestra was often drowned out by the enormous chorus, as was the ondes Martenot at times (played by Cynthia Millar). The uneven miking of the soloists gave an unbalanced effect. However, the vocal soloists were excellent, notably the clear Mozart soprano of Hae Ji Chang as Margaret and the richer-voiced soprano Tamara Wilson, who sang the solos in the introduction and closing. Tenor Timothy Fallon valiantly coped with the high tessiatura of Porcus the bishop.

It’s difficult to know exactly what to make of this quirky, highly personal work, but it's a fascinating journey. Any chance to experience its rich variety should be savored.