Gil Rose, who leads the lively Odyssey Opera in Boston, makes a specialty of works like Rienzi and Dmitri that boast a considerable choral presence. He was bound, sooner or later, to get to Tchaikovsky’s Orleánskaia Djeva (The Maid of Orleans), and did so last Saturday, kicking off Odyssey’s fifth season—a remarkably short time in which to have become a major regional presence. The season is entitled “Trial By Fire,” dedicated to five works about Joan of Arc, some staged, others in concert, plus Donizetti’s Siege of Calais.
Djeva, given in concert, was nonetheless sumptuous. The small size and elegant acoustics of the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall (which seats about a thousand), made the symphonic and choral forces sound even grander than they were, enveloping a happy audience for four hours in this very Russian version of a Parisian grand opera.
Besides a skillful reading of Tchaikovsky’s thundering choral clamor and delicate orchestration (and it’s very Tchaikovsky, full of elegant tricks in the style of those that ornament the Nutcracker or Onegin), Odyssey gave us a leading lady, Kate Aldrich, thoroughly in charge of the long title role.
Three costumes (Art Nouveau for the country girl, dark metallic gown for the armored warrior, white shift and bare feet for the martyr) registered changes in the Maid’s circumstances. Aldrich has developed from light mezzo parts to a full-bodied singer of impressive power, sensuality and superb vocal control from the despairing lowest notes to a ringing top that gleamed through the orchestral forces.
The intensity of her prayers in Act I was inspiring, but she also riveted attention through the lengthy declamation that galvanizes the Dauphin in Act II, and was credibly torn between passion and holy duty in the scenes with Lionel, the Burgundian knight whose life she spares in battle. Lionel is the motive Tchaikovsky (following Schiller) provides for Joan’s loss of faith in herself.
This is absurd, though not as absurd as Verdi’s solution in Giovanna d’Arco, which will conclude the Odyssey season next April: having Joan fall for the Dauphin. One must remember that Joan was not yet officially a saint, but these inventions are sure to raise titters.
Actually, none of the other characters has much depth: The piece is a monodrama with grand opera trappings. It is only Joan’s dilemma, psychological and spiritual, that intrigues us or the composer, and since we can’t really believe in her passion for Lionel, the fiery exorcism, bereft of accusations of witchcraft or hysterical English patriotism, may puzzle some listeners. There’s a chorus of commentary angels (not of devils as well, as in Verdi), and they sound pretty but their words are not enlightening.
The men around Joan were an impressive group in many ranges. Kevin Ray, for example, has a silvery lyric tenor with serenely lovely high notes. The Dauphin can seem epicene or silly (there is no version of Joan’s story that makes him much of a hero), but the aristocratic ease of Ray’s tone gave his regal contrast its due: This is a ruler who never gets his hands or his phrasing dirty.
Yeghishe Manucharyan, a baritone of considerable dignity, sang Joan’s fiancé, Raymond, who serves as a foil in duets with her angry father, Thibaut. That self-righteous role went to Kevin Thompson, whose menacing fulminations shook the auditorium with a credible depiction of mindless paternal hellfire.
Aleksey Bogdanov sang the romantic Lionel with a driving, masculine baritone, rich as chocolate babka, torn between battlefield bloodlust and sudden yearning in a way that almost made his dilemma credible. Mikhail Svetlov, who sang Tsar Dodon in New City Opera’s Golden Cockerel so wittily last May, was all priestly dignity as only the Russians can serve it as the Archbishop. David Kravitz, a local favorite, sang Dunois with clear but sometimes unsteady intonation. Erica Petrocelli, given the drab role of Agnes Sorel, sang a few impressive phrases.
Rose has a natural feel for the way grand opera composers built scenes to excite audiences, and the effects on this occasion seemed to explode mellifluously into the fan-shaped arena. The exquisite way Tchaikovsky’s melodies float over woodwind effects (with the horn serving as one of the winds) was particularly happy in his hands. I thought him a little carried away during the final scene, which benefits from a stately movement through helpless witness to the ultimate horror, but this scene has never failed, in my experience, to conquer an audience.
With its magnificent orchestration, a familiar and beloved aria in Act I (usually known by its French title, “Adieu, foret”), spectacular concerted finales, a fulsome ballet and the irresistible conclusion, in which the composer, who had recently attended the first Ring at Bayreuth, appears to be saying, “This is the way to score a pyre,” Djeva’s comparative obscurity seems to call for explanation. The psychological puzzle of the heroine is part of it, certainly, but we do not need Joan to make sense to sympathize with her.
Djeva was the first of Tchaikovsky’s operas to be heard outside Russia and was, indeed, designed for international circulation at a time when few Russian operas, if any, had been exported. The composer followed the Parisian style, and the result is a hybrid with insufficient personality of its own. What he discounted was how dated the Scribe-Meyerbeer model had become.
Too, many critics have been uncomfortable with Tchaikovsky’s version of fifteenth-century France. Iolanta is set in the same place and period—but Iolanta is a fairy tale. Djeva aspires to French historical pageant, but its characters make music like Slavs. The atmospheric minstrels serenading Charles VII smack of Smetana’s Moldau. The love duets have a lugubrious Russian tint. It was all very well for Berlioz to invent a march for the Trojans and Verdi to devise the sound of Pharaoh’s court since we do not know Trojan or ancient Egyptian tunes, but opera audiences do know French music, and this Joan just doesn’t sound French.
Bostonians may get a more subtle view of Joan from Odyssey with Norman Dello Joio’s The Trial at Rouen in December or Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au Bucher in February.