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November 18, 2011

BSO makes case for Honegger's quirky oratorio 'Joan of Arc at the Stake'

Joan of Arc did not get a fair trial. But she did received a pretty decent form of posthumous vindication -- sainthood.

Arthur Honegger's 1938 oratorio about the hypocrisy and cruelty surrounding the 15th-century French heroine's fate initially enjoyed a brilliant success for several years. But "Jeanne' d'Arc au bucher" gradually faded into rarity status, if not downright obscurity.

Now comes Marin Alsop, bounding onto the scene, not with a sword, but a white baton, to give Honegger's ambitious work a fresh hearing.

The oratorio is the conductor's calling card du jour -- she has performed it in Oregon and England recently -- and her commitment could be felt every minute Thursday night at the Meyerhoff, where Alsop presided over a large assemblage.

Joining the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra were the Morgan State University Choir, Peabody-Hopkins Chorus, Concert Artists of Baltimore, and Peabody Children's Chorus; two actors; several solo singers; and an ondes martenot player (this early electronic instrument plays a valuable role in the prismatic score).

Alsop is ...

in her element when confronting musical-logistical challenges. She presided with calm authority over the masses that packed the stage, maintaining smooth coordination and a taut flow that largely succeeded in helping the disparate pieces of the quirky oratorio fit together.

With a wide-ranging stylistic reach that manages to incorporate allusions to ancient chant, Bach chorales, jazz and cabaret, "Jeanne d'Arc" is on the unruly side.

But that eclecticism helps keep the roughly 80-minute piece continually absorbing (if not always persuasive). There's a fresh aural experience around every corner.

The text by Paul Claudel gets heavy-handed in places, especially with satire. But where the personal tragedy of Jeanne is kept tightly in focus, Claudel's poetry hits the spot.

The oratorio requires a performer in the title role -- a speaking part -- who can create a kind of music of her own. That Caroline Dhavernas did superbly.

Though confined to a small plot of space onstage, the actress inhabited the character so incisively -- she even looked the part -- that you could conjure up cinematic imagery to go with it.

Dhavernas proved wonderfully touching in the close of Scene IX, when Jeanne says with quiet faith, "There is God who is the strongest." The actress was likewise affecting in the next scene, when Jeanne sings a few lines from a folk song (the only singing called for in the role).

The solo singers were uniformly effective, offering lots of dynamic phrasing.

Tamara Wilson's gleaming soprano registered fully. Soprano Hae Ji Chang and mezzo Kelley O'Connor blended exquisitely. Timothy Fallon coped well with the high-lying tenor part, and bass Morris Robinson made his presence felt strongly. There were vibrant contributions as well from Vijay Ghosh and Nathan Wyatt (I loved the Monty Python voice he tossed in at one point), along with the young, sweet voice of Caitlin DeLatte.

The choral forces summoned a mighty sound at the score's climatic points and got fully into the spirit of the wild trial scene, where Jeanne is tried by assorted (or sordid) animals.

I would not have minded a little more volume from the ondes martenot, but it was played expertly by Cynthia Millar. The orchestra rose to the occasion impressively. The brass, especially the pinpoint trumpets, contributed greatly.

Alsop ultimately made a strong case for "Jeanne d'Arc au bucher." Her sensitivity to the most personal moments in the work paid off, and she built some of the most atmospheric moments, such as the opening of Scene VII with its tolling bells, with great care. She also tapped into the mix of drama and strange rapture of the finale to telling effect.

Given the spatial limitations, stage director James Robinson could not generate much inn the way of action, but he clearly helped the performers animate the text, and lighting effects worked well to set mood and maintain focus.

One thing that could have used fine-tuning was the surtitles used to project translations of the French text. Too often, so many lines were crammed onto a single frame that I imagine a lot of folks in the hall would have welcomed binoculars.

This is not a piece likely to be done again any time soon, let alone done much better. Catch it tonight at the Meyerhoff, or head to Carnegie Hall tomorrow.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:10 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop


Amen to your comments about Alsop, Dhavernas, and the surtitles. Not the first time the Meyerhoff has managed to make text difficult for the audience to read.

1. You say that "Joan" was "confined to a small plot of space onstage". This is in keeping with the 1930s performance practice for the oratorio. In the original version, Joan spends the whole oratorio chained to her stake. Ida Rubinstein was the first Joan.

2. Thanks for pointing out Claudel's heavy-handedness. It's a loser of a text, frankly. You were too charitable concerning Joan's personal tragedy.

Alas, Ms. Alsop did not program the work at Strathmore...

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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