Cher Public

d’Arc victory

Tonight’s program at the New York Philharmonic, Arthur Honegger’s massive oratorio dramatique Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher, has been an occasional visitor to the orchestra’s repertoire starting with the performance conducted by Charles Munch in January of 1948.  Despite its slight 70 minute running time, it’s a vast polyphonic work that attracts that certain species of conductor who enjoys showing off the adroit command of large forces both orchestral and choral. As well one can hardly imagine the near electro-magnetic tug actresses must feel at the opportunity of playing one of the most mythic women of the middle ages and not get scorched by the process.  

It will hardly come as a surprise to anyone then that the commission for this work came from the wildly famous star of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes Ida Rubenstein. A student of the great Russian Choreographer Mikhail Fokine, she was partnered by Nijinsky in the premiere of the ballet version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade. A stylish woman of some fortune, she eventually started her own dance company and was the driving force behind a number of works including Ravel’s Bolero and brought together Folkine, the great designer Lèon Bakst, Gabriele D’Annunzio, and Claude Debussy for the creation of Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien. Sadly, Parisian Catholics were forbidden from seeing the performance by their sitting Archbishop because Ms. Rubenstein, portraying the Saint, was both a woman and a Jew.

No one, I trust, will even blink at the reminder that both Honegger’s Jeanne and Debussy’s Saint Sebastien proved fertile vehicles for the actress Felicia Montealegre during the tenure of her husband, Leonard Bernstein, as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. Performances of the Honegger in April 1958 at Carnegie Hall also show the participation of the great Martial Singher in the speaking role of Frère Dominique and the heavenly trio (literally) of the young Frances Bible, Adele Addison and Leontyne Price. (Where’s that time machine when you need it?)

Honegger’s Joan was also a particular favorite of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini staged a series of performances for her and filmed one in Naples, in Italian translation Giovanna d’Arco al Rogo, in 1953. My understanding is that the text is altered but I’ve yet to search out the film.

Whom ever pointed the French actress Marion Cotillard in the direction of this work should be both congratulated and thanked. Although the inspiration may be fairly close to home since she follows in the footsteps of own mother, Niseema Theillaud, who was well regarded in the role. Appropriately enough Ms. Cotillard made her first assumption of Jeanne in Orleans in 2005. Her next performance was in Barcelona in 2012 under the baton of Marc Soustrot. The production coming to the Philharmonic on the 10 June for a run of four nights originated at the Saito Kinen Festival in Japan in 2012 and is fully staged and costumed but Ms. Cotillard has only been travelling with it since February with its mountings in Monaco, Toulouse and Paris.

The performance on this DVD is also available on CD and is presented by Alpha Productions 20th Century and documents the concert of 17 November 2012 in Barcelona. It is presented solely as an oratorio and makes a very strong case for this short but substantial work with its transcendent blend of musical and dramatic styles.

Honegger was a member of the French sewing circle of composers Les Six and was obscenely prolific in his lifetime. Composing a number of symphonies, oratorios, operas, ballet, chamber music, and the scores for over 40 films including Abel Gance’s monumental Napolèon. His ideas on composition were very down to earth,”One can, one should, address the average audience without making any concessions, but also without obscurity… one should not defer to its tastes, but neither should it be left in the dark”.

To that end the musical score of his Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher could be perceived on first hearing as a facile work of slight intellectual merit.  The libretto by Paul Claudel is almost the greater work of the two and gives the piece its cinematic scope as Jeanne’s life passes before her in her final moments. Honegger himself said that Claudel’s contribution to the whole was so great he didn’t consider himself “its true author but rather a mere collaborator.”

Claudel provides 11 scenes that range from a prologue representing France as a country void of leadership, Jeanne’s trial by beasts (a pig bishop presiding, an ass as the clerk), the Kings of France and England playing a game of cards for her fate, and finally the great scena at the stake. Much of Claudel’s language points slyly to the dark era in France’s history at the time of its composition in the late 1930’s.

Honegger writes for a large orchestra, replacing the traditional horns with three saxophones. Two grand pianos have metal rods placed across their strings during the card scene to simulate the sound of a harpsichord. The Ondes Martenot offers eerie sonic effects not unlike Bernard Hermann’s beloved theremin in his score for The Day the Earth Stood Still.

The French conductor Marc Soustrot shows his affection for the work by not only dancing his way through the jauntier parts of the score on the podium but by hand feeding every beat and bar to the combined forces of the Barcelona Symphony and the Catalonia National Orchestra. He’s also just as attentive to the three combined choirs and they do a magnificent job. Just to keep this piece together as it careens from baroque-pastiche to jazz to Wagnerian leitmotif has got to earn the person holding the baton some sort of recognition.

The excellent trio of heavenly voices includes Marta Almajano, Aude Extrèmo, and especially the lovely Maria Hinojosa as the Virgin. I wouldn’t say any of them are singularly distinguished vocally but they perform with real feeling most especially Ms. Hinojosa in the final pages.

The Bishop Porcus could have found no better exponent than Yann Beuron whose piquant character tenor rings out easily over what is often the choral cacophony behind him during the trial.

The role of Frère Dominique is normally given to a gentleman with more than a bit of graying gravitas which makes the choice of the French classical actor Xavier Gallais an unusual one. But he provides strong, compassionate support for our heroines performance. His character never lies to the young Jeanne and is at times forced to tell gentle truths. He makes these moments his own. The fact that he is also wildly handsome is just frosting. He is the only other performer who stays standing throughout.

Ms. Cotillard enters with the rest of the principals and takes her place at her music stand. She is dressed simply in a gray knit top and matching, fitted skirt. She wears her hair in ponytail, and shows traces of only street makeup. She does not sit but stands for the entirety. She follows the score closely, it’s apparent she can read music, and speaks directly to the audience only rarely referring to her text. She sounds and appears younger than her years, which shouldn’t surprise since she’s a shapeshifter like Daniel Day-Lewis.

She gives a performance of such modest simplicity that it’s easy at times to forget that this is a performance. But as her performance builds and as the passions rise in the final scenes she cries out, ”Je ne veux pas mourir! J’ai peur!” and a single tear rolls down her cheek. She appears to lack artifice completely and is sincerely humbled by the audience’s overwhelming response at the curtain calls.

Lighting, videography and direction are especially fine and there are some very subtle but evocative camera effects that draw you into the concert. On first viewing I was deeply moved by the performance of the actors and singers, if not so much by the piece itself.  Having to research for this review and returning to it twice now after discovering so much nuance and history I do think it is a masterwork but one that doesn’t give up its gifts readily to the listener. I can also recommend the Seiji Ozawa recording on DG with Marthe Keller which I’ve had for many years but really only appreciated now. (Although Ozawa does perhaps look too  encouragingly at the Ondes Martenot.) His singers are a finer group too but I’m afraid the actors here in Barcelona are unsurpassable.

I’m excited to hear reports from Avery Fisher Hall this week because it will be most interesting to hear how Ms. Cotillard does with a fully staged, choreographed and costumed production around her. Here in Barcelona in 2012 she proves that she and the words and the music are sufficient to create real theatre.

  • PCally

    I’m so excited to be seeing this. A very interesting piece and Cotillard is one of the finest. The reports of her LM have been overwhelmingly positive.

  • phoenix

    Patrick Mack must be the most successful door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman to ever run on parterre.
    -- It was interesting to read about Mme. Ida Rubenstein and the Parisian censorship -- a reflection of the events retold in the work itself, banned by the Archbishop -- shows how far artistic freedom had advanced in France by the 20th century -- things would have quite different if the Huguenots had won.
    -- Actually, this work has been broadcast over the internet quite a few times over the last decade or so with different performers. I have tried in vain for half century to ‘get’ Honegger’s musical style -- maybe his genius lies in the fact there isn’t really any.

    • I’d say a pretty identifiable compositional style runs through Honegger’s work from the early sonatas to the late symphonies, including the concertos and quartets along the way. He likes dense harmonic aggregates, with dissonant, sinuous melodies piled on top, but he will also use pan diatonic melodies and harmonies for contrast, he makes frequent use of ostinato, but also had a fondness for great rhythmic complication and subtlety. He also had a sense of what the public liked, and occasionally gave it to them (Roi David finale, Jeanne d’Arc, and the fun fun fun Roi Pausole). Other works, like the magnificent Antigone, can be more forbidding, which explains their comparative lack of success.

      • phoenix

        Thanks for the ‘identification’ croche -- I have copied your explanation for further reference, thus I will consult it again as I listen to Honegger’s works.
        -- Just listened to Honegger’s Antigone -- yes, I like it much better than Jeanne d’Arc -- what is forbidding about it? For me it is much more exciting, vibrant & less boring than d’Arc:

        -- It reminds very much of Orff’s Prometheus, which I only saw once in a concert performance in Moscow but I liked very much (see video below):
        http://meloman.ru/concert/karl-orf-prometej/#webcast
        -- I’ve never heard Orff’s Antigonae complete. I have an absolutely unchanging dislike of Martha Mödl in anything, and hers seems to be the much heralded only performance of Antigonae I have been able to find. She is just too much for me -- I can take a lot of camp & ego (in addition to my own, of course) but she goes beyond the frontier.

  • Stefan

    This reminded me of a DVD I have of another performance from Montpellier that was staged. I haven’t watched it in some time but there is nothing like the present. It is still available from a reseller on Amazon but it is expensive now.

  • Kenhere

    Heretic! Witch! Apostate! Heartbreaker!Was Joan of Arc half so beautiful as Marion Cotillard?

    • Baltsamic Vinaigrette

      Can’t be sure, but one thing is certain: Jeanne was only half Marion’s age when she was burnt at the stake in Rouen.

  • I would hardly call a 70 minute running time “slight”.

    • Patrick Mack

      Compared to, say, Les Troyens?

      • armerjacquino

        Or most other oratorios, come to that.

        • Such as Honegger’s Le Roi David, Cris du Monde, and Danse des Morts?

            • armerjacquino

              Ok, ok, I give up, STOP THROWING ORATORIOS AT ME

            • Catch! :-)

          • le cerf agile

            Or Nicolas de Flue?

            • Indeed! One might almost start to think that 45-75 minute running times were a norm for 20th-century oratorios (not “the” norm -- no such thing exists after WWI -- but a reasonably conventional choice).

    • Big Finn

      When is a composition SHORT? When you wish for more? Isn’t a complete work of art in music as long as it should be? Why would this work be better if it was longer?

      If a composer of skill and vision completes a work as he pleases, and it impressively fills 70 minutes, it’s absurd to cry for 2 or 5 hours, or to use an adjective such as slight.

      Thank composers who know what they are doing for the right length! Works that sound short are of course much preferable to those that sound LONG, and wear you to fatigue before their end.

    • Big Finn

      I think a serious and gifted composer creates a work of ideal length regarding his intentions. If the composer is talented enough, the listener does not think about the work’s length in time.

      A work that seems SHORT somehow reads to me as if lacking, or that it was so impressive that one “would have loved to hear more”.

      I’d prefer a work “short” rather than “long”, if long then implies that the time used exceeds the composer’s talent.

      A balanced work of art is just that, regardless of the time it occupies when played and while listening…

      …as compared to a usual oratorio,,, usual opera,,, usual symphony, usual lied… what’s the point of “usual”, its implication being merely administrative:)

      • armerjacquino

        I think there has been a little too much made of a couple of throwaway remarks. PM mentioned that 70 minutes isn’t particularly long; I mentioned that other oratorios are longer. Neither observation contained a value judgement, or was to have been viewed as part of a manifesto.

        Of course a work needs to be the length that it is, and there are no rules on the subject. Nonetheless, 70 minutes isn’t a long visit to an opera house or concert hall, and there are a lot of oratorios longer than 70 minutes. I would have thought it wasn’t particularly controversial to suggest either of those things; apparently I was wrong.

        • Still at it? You had the wrong context for judging oratorio length. Just as the 19th-century oratorio differs from those of the 17th-century Carissimi, music after WWI developed new traditions for oratorios, dispensing in part with some of the inflated monumentality that infected much of nineteenth century art. You claim that Jean d’Arc au Bucher was shorter “than most other oratorios” was wrong on its face, and we supplied a dozen counterexamples from the 1920s -60s.. Knowing the proper context to evaluate things is an essential attribute of the judicious critic.

          • manou

            Well, well -- and I always thought the cardinal rule for oratorio length was that it should equal a piece of string.

            • armerjacquino

              Actually, string for parcels can be very long, whereas string on a treasury tag is usually short. KNOW YOUR CONTEXT, FOR GOD’S SAKE.

          • armerjacquino

            Try another look at my first sentence, croche.

            And, fyi, I’m not a judicious critic. I’m just someone who likes music, who sometimes comments on a website about it.

            • Camille

              You’ve been strung UP in the Court of Parterrian Opinion, lieber armerjacquino!

            • armerjacquino

              I mean, I’ve allowed myself to get into some daft arguments on here, but dear GOD.

            • Incorrigible. Not included are Brecht/Eisler’s Massnahme and Isang Yun’s Om Mani Padme Hum

            • Camille

              Crochie-pie, I made a mistake yesterday, when describing your domains as extending from the kingdom of Napoli to the Mongolian Mountains--it should read: The teapots of Taipei. You were cheated by at least a country or three, so, sorry. Like Bluebeard, your dominions are VAST.

              I do thank you for the Om Mani Padme Hum, as I need it right now.
              OM Tara.

            • I do not merit such praise, Camille, but thank you.

              Three more, just in case there is some master’s student in choral conducting who is casting about for a thesis topic. Composed between 1930 and 1960, none of these works lasts more than 45 minutes.

            • Camille

              Oh, Ich denke JA!

              Don’t be such a shy and receding violet, for perhaps you are more or less the norm in The Peoples Republic of Berkeley, but here in the Infinite CyberWelt of La Cieca, you are a supernova nonpareil!

          • Cicciabella

            Never mind postgrad students. Amateur choirs of the world, see above (or is it below?) for your repertoire for the next few years. Listen to m.croche and no-one needs to be bored by another Messiah or Creation ever again.

  • brunettino

    Honegger’s Rugby (1928) is pretty great -- intense, loud, chromatic then lyrical, and very punchy.

  • redbear

    Something even longer. BBC is allowing streaming of the entire Cardiff Singers of the World competition from the 14th to the 21st. Info is at bbc.co.uk/cardiffsinger. You need to subscribe to sonostream.tv they say.

  • Ilka Saro

    OK, which one of you queens came up with “D’Arc Victory”. Best ever! Was it P Mack, or Cieca, or Cieca’s brilliant team of writers? (Cammarano, Boito, and Reiner)

    • Patrick Mack

      La Cieca is a gifted headline scribe.

    • Camille

      This has the unmistakeably sure, unique thumbprints of La Cieca written all over it.

      As in

      Or, perhaps it was that inimitable team, Camaranno, Boito, Reiner et Cie.

  • le cerf agile

    Perhaps not a characteristic piece of Honegger’s, but a particular favorite, and seasonally apropos:

  • Camille

    A very interesting and useful summary and so, thank you, Patrick.

    This work was given at Lincoln Center a few years ago, I do not recall now by whom and am hoping to catch it this time. Has anyone yet anything to remark upon about this set of performances? I am guessing the Times review should be out at least by tomorrow if not already.

    • Camille

      Actually, I saw a placard at Lincoln Center, (in front of Alice Tully Hall) advertising this work a few years back, but upon further investigation (an old Opera Snooze review, fwiw) it was apparently none other than Maestro Marin and the Baltimore Bunch performing Honegger in Carnegie Hall.

      Anyone there?