In the midst of composing his fifth opera, The Maid of Orléans, in 1879, Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modest, “If this opera won’t be a masterpiece in general, it will be my masterpiece!” Popular with the public but disparaged by critics and his fellow musicians, Tchaikovsky nurtured a great affection for this problem child, tinkered with it, and contemplated a wholesale revision of the final two acts throughout the last years of his life.

Kate Aldrich © Kathy Wittman
Kate Aldrich
© Kathy Wittman

But the major problem with the opera was always his librettist: himself. Tchaikovsky used the same source as Verdi 35 years earlier for the bulk of his libretto, Schiller’s Die Jungfrau von Orléans in a Russian translation by Vasily Zhukovsky, but interpolated material from a 1873 play by Jules Barbier, from Auguste Mermet’s libretto for his 1876 opera based on Barbier, and from Henri Mallon’s 1879 biography. The result is a narrative quilt in which several of the panels are dull or threadbare and the drama stalls thanks to scenes extraneous to the action. The musical invention rarely flags, compensating in part for narrative flaws and murky motivations, but there are scenes, melodically ravishing though they may be, which could easily be excised. For example, the concision and momentum of the first act dissipates as the second opens with three dances, then a prolonged scene for Charles VII, his beloved, Agnès Sorel, and Dunois keeping Joan and her story off-stage much too long. And the introduction of Lionel, the Burgundian traitor from Schiller whom Joan spares then falls in love with, seems perfunctory for a character who triggers the opera’s denouement.

Still, a case can be made for Tchaikovsky’s attempt to write a Russian grand opéra, if a formidable cast and chorus, a top-notch orchestra, and a sensitive conductor take it up. Odyssey Opera was fortunate to have all four on hand for the concert performance which opened its fifth season. Joan was originally written for a dramatic soprano. A year after the work’s première, the directorate of the St Petersburg theaters asked Tchaikovsky to rewrite the role for a mezzo. Keys may have changed but the dramatic and vocal burden remained substantial. Kate Aldrich had the color, warmth and range to limn Joan’s strength and determination, rapt mysticism, and her doubts and inner conflicts, plus the power to be heard even in the most exuberant ensembles. The chorus of angels in Act 1 and after sang from the back of the balcony. Aldrich often fixed her gazed in that direction during crucial moments throughout the opera. She sang the first act in luminous, virginal white, changed to an armor-like gown of metallic black for the next two and a half acts, and made her final appearance, for her execution, barefoot and in a silver grey shift.

The remainder of the roles were so strongly cast that several singers in lesser roles, like the ever reliable Yeghishe Manucharyan, David Salsbery Frye (displaying the best pronunciation and diction amongst the non-Slavs in the cast), and Erica Petrocelli, could have easily assumed the primary roles in their fachs. Petrocelli in particular evidenced the makings of a future Joan in her Agnès. Notable for sonority and authority were Kevin Ray’s Charles VII, Mikhail Svetlov’s Archbishop, David Kravitz’s Dunois, and Kevin Thompson’s imposing and eminently hissable Thibaut, a father so blinded by zealotry he grievously misjudges his daughter and condemns her to her doom. Lionel, a role short but intense, enters the scene at a fever pitch which rarely subsides. Even his love duet with Joan is emotionally charged. Aleksey Bogdanov’s ringing high baritone typified the bold warrior, casting an ardent glow on Aldrich’s dark timbre in their duets.

Gil Rose and his orchestra played with precision, finesse, and boundless energy. Their total immersion in the score made Tchaikovsky’s many orchestral effects count, the final scene in particular with flickering flames rising from the flute joined by tongues of fire from skirling strings, all over the relentless systolic pulse of the timpani, as Joan’s pyre flared to life and conventional fire music assumed the form of a death march.

Joan of Arc and The Hundred Year’s War are the unifying themes for Odyssey’s fifth season ending in April with the other Schiller-based Joan opera, Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco. With The Maid of Orléans, they have set a high bar for the operas to follow.