Joan of Arc endures even today as one of history’s most obsessed-about martyrs. It’s no wonder when you consider that her story is of such uniqueness and potency: a poor, low-born French villager submerged in a war-battered France; it was the Hundred Years’ War, and as a child she witnessed several raids, both military and outlaw, and on one occasion saw her village burned. At the age of twelve she first began to have her visions, which she considered direct communication with God. With much struggle, this young peasant, as far from nobility as one could be, found a way to have an audience with Charles VII of France, whom she impressed greatly. Soon thereafter she inspired the whole country, most notably its soldiers at war, and led the army to a number of astounding victories as an honor-bearer and morale booster. Finally, when her soldiers attempted to attack a Burgundian camp in 1430, she was forced to retreat, and after an arrow injured her mount, she was captured. A farcical trail ensued, fraught with corruption and lies, and Joan was sentenced to be burned alive at the stake for her heresy.

Joan of Arc, by Gaston Bussiere (1862–1928)
Joan of Arc, by Gaston Bussiere (1862–1928)

It is this subject which Arthur Honegger took up, with the extravagant and often labyrinthine text of Paul Claudel. At first this work may seem an odd choice by Nagano for the OSM’s season finale, but in fact Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher was championed by the orchestra’s previous music director Charles Dutoit.

Claudel paints a rather unconventional portrait of Joan in this text. He begins with the burning for which she is so famous, and then retreats into scenes from her life. We see her visions, which are schizophrenic in their sudden manifestations, and of course the famous trail, during which the attention is not put on the proceedings, but instead the on corruption of those presiding. Joan is portrayed not as an impassioned and fervent believer in God who wears a man’s armor and storms castles, but instead as a meek and confused peasant girl who is overwhelmed by a cacophony of voices.

It is a work of monstrous proportions. A gargantuan orchestra crowded the stage which included such odd instruments as celesta, saxophones (standing in for French horns), grand piano, and of course, the ondes Martenot, so loved by Messaien. Orbiting the orchestra was a nebula of singers: one full chorus, a children’s choir aloft in the highest balcony, five vocal soloists, two comedians and two actors. Jeanne d’Arc herself was played by actress Carole Bouquet, raised high on an illuminated dais in the center of the room.

Suspended directly in front of the chorus was a semi-transparent screen onto which projections were constantly being thrown. At the very top was the translation, but most of the screen was occupied continuously with nebulous, surreal patterns – sometimes suggesting smoke or religious symbols, though mostly just obstructing the drama and music which was unfolding on the stage. In fact, paired with the text of Claudel which is built on a constantly shifting timeline, the projections only served to heighten the general sense of confusion in the audience. This really served no purpose, didn’t relate to the drama or music, and should have been left out.

The musicians onstage, while grappling with such difficulties, performed extremely well. Most notable was the chorus, which was constantly changing roles in the music and drama, with soloists emerging and slinking away almost perpetually. Their music was extremely challenging, with difficult intervals and effects such as imitations of animals and wild shouting.

Kent Nagano was totally comfortable with the whirlwind of intricacy surrounding him. Standing illuminated in the center, he radiated order amidst the chaos, always in control. He proved that this kind of complexity is best left in the hands of an opera conductor.

The music itself is marvelously varied in style and conception. Honegger seems to draw from a great number of traditions: one can hear moments of clear Baroque counterpoint, medieval chant, musical absurdism and wit such as during the game of cards or the trail led by animals, and finally the savage and rhythmic violence which he used to illustrate the scene at the stake.

This story is a favorite of artists: Shakespeare, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Dreyer and Twain are among those who used Joan’s tale. Honegger himself, with this incredible composition, greatly surpassed the confusing and hazy text of Claudel. The whole body of musicians in the Maison Symphonique performed wonderfully this evening, but the audience had a great deal of trouble navigating the dramatic world in front of them. It is indeed a strange but powerful taste left in our mouths until next season.