Remember NBC Opera Theater? For 15 years, back in the dawn of television, that visionary company brought opera into the living rooms of America, always in English (imagine Boris Godunov and The Love of Three Kings in English!), often contemporary (Poulenc’s brand new Dialogues of the Carmelites; too, Menotti composed Amahl for NBC and Bernstein Trouble in Tahiti), often using not-yet-world-famous performers—Leontyne Price sang their Tosca, Pamina and Madame Lidoine, Giorgio Tozzi their Boris. The project died, of course.
Norman Dello Joio, who was knocking about winning prizes for film and TV scores, composed The Trial at Rouen, his second opera on the subject, for NBC. This premiered in 1956 before an audience of millions. Reviodysews were moderately admiring, but the composer was dissatisfied with his own work. He was fascinated by the character of Joan, having been inspired by Ingrid Bergman in a film of Maxwell Anderson’s play to investigate her brief life and conflicted reputation. The opera that came out of this, premiered at Sarah Lawrence (where he was teaching) in 1950, did not satisfy him. Neither did the symphony in three movements that he extracted from the score, although Martha Graham danced the premiere. (Top that, Gustav Mahler!)
When Peter Herman Adler of NBC Opera commissioned a work from Dello Joio, he insisted on returning to the material, but with a new libretto (his own) in two acts. This intrigued Julius Rudel, who asked for a one-act version to play the New York City Opera on a double-bill with Menotti’s The Medium in 1959. For this, The Triumph of Joan of Arc, his fourth tangle with the tale, Dello Joio wrote a version longer than that of ’56 and threw in music from all its predecessors. Rudel gave it a terrific cast, reviews were moderately favorable.
None of these iterations except the symphony has been heard by the public again until last Friday, when Odyssey Opera in Boston semi-staged The Trial at Rouen (with cuts opened up and an opening scene for a guard from the 1950 opera) at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall as part of its 2017-18 season. The season is largely dedicated to works about Joan of Arc. Tchaikovsky’s, the best such opera, was given an excellent concert performance in September, Honegger and Verdi are to come. I’d wished they’d give Giovanni Pacini’s Giovanna d’Arco or Walter Braunfels’ Szenen aus dem Leben der Heiligen Johanna, but that’s me.
With The Trial at Rouen, Odyssey Opera demonstrated two traits on which Boston can happily rely: conductor Gil Rose likes to present unusual, often neglected works, premieres or revivals, and, second, he has superb taste in singing talent.
The Trial at Rouen starred Heather Buck, who has been singing the flamboyant, maddened Miss Havisham of Dominick Argento’s monodrama with Mr. Rose here and there. Her sweet, steady, full soprano is better suited to the firm, devotional manner of Dello Joio’s Maid of Orleans than to the scatterbrained Miss H, though she looked rather too collected and feminine for this agitated, hoyden part. She portrayed a very self-contained Joan, all defiant lyricism in the teeth of her inquisitors; her voice moves well and Dello Joio clearly knew how to write for it.
New York City Opera vet Stephen Powell was mature and menacing as the baritone Bishop of Beauvais, Joan’s most determined prosecutor. Bass Luke Scott was gentler as Father Julien, who would rather credit Joan’s piety than push her into despair. The debate between these two—cheered on by a small (but elegantly costumed) gang of inquisitorial jurors—had to do to sum up the awkward position in which Joan placed the Church; it was dramatically if not musically very effective.
Ryan Stoll, a fine long-breathed baritone, did a lovely job with the atmospheric stanzas of the scene-setting opening, taken from the 1950 initial effort, though an actual jailor might sound a bit less refined, and tenor Jeremy Ayres Fisher vigorously attempted Joan’s rape in the scene when we first meet her. Historically this is accurate: Joan protested bitterly to the English that their solders were assaulting her, and her jailors found this very embarrassing. The choice of this scene to introduce her is very canny, very telegenic. Dello Joio rightly decided to tell the story in his own way rather than attempt to adapt someone else’s play or film script.
The opera also presents a chorus of inquisitors, off stage and then (colorfully costumed by Brooke Stanton) in the balcony of New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall to exhort the prisoner to repent of her pride, if nothing else. Another chorus of higher voices delights in the fun of a witchcraft trial, then are won over by Joan’s simplicity and honesty, and a few of them, lurking offstage, offer bits of angelic comfort. Reviews of various versions of the opera speak of the interesting choral background, of whispered doubts, denunciations and a Greek choral function, but they were not clearly distinct on the Boston occasion.
The opera was preceded by a performance (undanced) by the Odyssey Opera orchestra of the Triumph of Saint Joan Symphony of 1952, a well-constructed and well-orchestrated piece with very danceable climaxes. Dello Joio’s idiom recalls Aaron Copland and William Schuman at their amiable pinnacle. No one could be offended by such music and hardly anyone was thrilled by it, even in the fifties. Choreography is probably the best use that could be made of it today. Dello Joio was a master of technique for every instrument, including the voice—some of his liturgical music is still sung, but will no doubt fall by the wayside, with many a worthier and less worthy composer, when traditional churches fade out or drop traditional music in leaner, meaner times.
The problem with Dello Joio’s opera is that, like so many post-Wagnerian and post-Verismo composers, he was chary of melody to create his characters; they mostly declaim their points of view to arioso, which makes, when unrelieved, for a tiresome evening. For another, he was reluctant to violate the post-Wagnerian canons by having his composers make their points simultaneously. Opera without concertato is not much fun—there are very few exceptions in nineteenth- or twentieth-century music. The geniuses (Poulenc and Britten and Prokofiev and even Beeson’s Lizzie Borden or Blitzstein’s Regina come to mind) figured out how to lead declamation into simultaneous music-making to make a dramatic point pleasurably.
Intriguing to hear a forgotten score, an enjoyable occasion for Mr. Rose’s taste in singers to be once again happily displayed, and a rousing rendition of lively if unconvincing musical work. Many good operas were being written in America after the war, and some of the best of them—The Consul, Vanessa, The Ballad of Baby Doe, Susannah, Lizzie Borden—can prove themselves in revival. If The Trial at Rouen does not belong to their number, it is not hackwork but a solid piece of craft. Dello Joio’s writing has never damaged a throat. This opera reminds us of why other operas of its era were worthier to survive.