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Frenzy over Fabulous Freni

Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
03/08/2005 -  
Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky: The Maid of Orleans
Mirella Freni (Joan d’Arc), Evgeny Nikitin (Thibaut d’Arc), Corey Evan Rotz (Raymond),
Philip Skinner (Bertrand), Viktor Lutsiuk (King Charles VII), Vladimir Moroz (Dunois), Trevor Byron Scheunemann (Lauret), Maira Kerey (Agnes Sorel), Feodor Kuznetsov (Archbishop), Sergei Leiferkus (Lionel), Maria Jooste (voice from angelic choir), Jeffrey Tarr (soldier)
Lamberto Puggelli (director), Luisa Spinatelli (set and costume design), Tiziana Tosco (choreographer), Joan Sullivan-Genthe (lighting design)
Stefano Ranzani (conductor)
Washington National Opera Chorus and Orchestra

The Washington National Opera’s production of the rarely seen and heard Maid of Orleans was a stunning event, highlighted by the stellar singing of the legendary Mirella Freni. Now 70 years old and celebrating the 50th anniversary of her professional singing debut, the radiant Freni remains in top voice, easily showing why she’s the revered singer she is.

Her soprano remains one of clarity, focus, flexibility, and power, the latter quality a master’s class for aspiring singers who haven’t grasped the skill and ability to project across a full sized orchestra pushing Tchaikovsky out into the hall. Freni also brought to the role a vocal and physical sense of emotion that successfully parlayed itself into a credible Joan of Arc. In fact, Freni inhabited the persona of the French maiden-warrior, delivering a compelling presentation.

This production was the same that was hand crafted for Freni at the Teatro Regio di Torino and included the original production team of conductor Stefano Ranzani, director Lamberto Puggelli, set designer Luisa Spinatelli, and choreographer Tiziana Tosco. Without question this was a consolidated production team that illustrated the power such a team can muster toward creating a brilliant work.

For all the action one might expect of an opera about Joan of Arc, it is essentially static. Lots of emotions flow but physically, in the hands of the ordinary director-designer, it’s of the stand and stare variety. However, Spinatelli’s smart design kept things visually active, eliminating any thought of things static. While scrims constantly moved about to reveal projections of objects or abstract elements, the focal piece of the production was the use of a seemingly endless series of immense, translucent-like veils or curtains that were color coded to emotional or physical states of affair. Periodically one would be suspended from the proscenium and serve as a projection surface or a simple backdrop or a mood setting device. Then, suddenly, the veil would be released and billow to the stage floor, its movement often taking on the role of a participant in the action. Every so often, one of the performers would take up the veil and it would become a cape that flowed across the stage, fluttering dramatically. The use in the final burn at the stake scene with the bright red colors and the manipulation of the material causing it to appear as flames was one of the most stunning visuals imaginable.

Of course, this was not a case of going to the opera and leaving humming the scenery. The fashionable design served to enhance the story and at no time detracted from the singing, although I must admit, I was frequently inclined to watch the staging and not notice the super titles of the Russian lyrics. Nonetheless, when Puggelli’s superb stage direction was added into the mix, the production aspects of this Maid soared.

Vocally, the role of Joan was perfectly suited to Freni’s comfortable range that hovered in the middle to upper middle, making her performance the flawless one it was. She was ably supported by superb singing on the part of Kazakhstanian soprano Maira Kerey as Agnes; Ukrainian tenor Viktor Lutsiuk as the mincing Charles VII; the Kirov bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin as Joan’s father, Thibaut d’Arc; and baritone Sergei Leiferkus as Lionel, Joan’s lover.

Ranzani carefully and closely made sure that all was well between the pit and the stage and most especially Freni. He led with a firm hand and the results were filled with passion, pulse, drama, and dimension. It might be a French tale but the music is all Tchaikovsky—powerful and passionate. That Maid of Orleans isn’t heard or seen more often is unfortunate, since, at least with this production, it was a thrilling production that will remain in memory.

John C. Shulson



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