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.