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The Drama, The Devotion, The Joy

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
06/10/2015 -  & June 11, 12, 13, 2015
Arthur Honegger: Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, H. 99
Marion Cotillard (Joan), Eric Génovèse (Brother Dominique), Christian Gonon (Narrator, Herald III, The Donkey, Miller Musty, Usher, William of Flavy, Mother of Barrells), Erin Morley (Virgin), Simone Osborne (Marguerite, a Voice), Faith Sherman (Catherine), Thomas Blondelle (A Priest, Porcus, John of Luxembough, Herald I, The Clerk), Steven Humes (Herald II, A Priest, Duke of Bedford), Charlotte Knutsen, Olivia Knutsen (Child Soprano Soloists), Dashel Grossman (The King), Thijs Beuming (Renault de Chartres)
New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt (Director), Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Dianne Berkun-Menaker (Director), Pierre Vallet (Chorus Master), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Music Director/Conductor)
Côme de Bellescize (Director), Blanche d’Harcourt (Artist Advisor), Jane Piot (Assistant Director), Sigolène de Chassy (Set Design), Thomas Costerg (Lighting Design), Colombe Lauriot Prévost (Costume Design)

M. Cotillard, A. Gilbert (© Chris Lee)

Until last night Alan Gilbert’s most singular dramatic achievement was his production of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, his superior conducting, his orchestra, his singers diminished only by the cumbersome puppets on stage.

In last night’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake), Mr. Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic had no inanimate objects: they had people. Absolutely splendid people, splendid voices. Actors and singers from France and America (this had originally been a French production originating in Japan), the New York Choral Artists weaving the most emotional spell from their risers above the orchestra, the equally scintillating Brooklyn Youth Chorus in bipolar roles (first as a herd of sheep, then as medieval children of Lorraine).

And most of all, this thrilling, so emotional piece had finest music by that one composer who towered far above those piquant, ironic colleagues of Les Six, Arthur Honegger.

A woman sitting next to me asked before the performance what she should listen for (sigh.) I told her just to listen. This was unashamed devotion and emotion. The “dramatic oratorio” had its sarcastic moments, but she would never be puzzled, and she would easily be moved.

(Then again, I was sitting behind two nuns. They weren’t quite certain what to think, and looked puzzled at each other. They gave a respectable applause at the end.)

Honegger famously said that he wanted to please audiences, but never be banal for professional musicians. Jeanne d’Arc could never be banal. I have heard it dozens of times on records, but this was my first staging of the work. And somehow, the staging, the music and the words by Paul Claudel always made sense.

The staging was mainly with the costumes. The stage itself consisted of two wooden risers with the New York Choral Artists separated, giving space for the different lights. The proscenium was extended, so the actors would strut and fret almost to the audience. On a great platform in the middle of the stage, Joan herself, with her sympathizing (perhaps heretical) friend, Brother Dominique (played with great eloquence by Eric Génovèse). She reviewed her life, was burned, feared, resolved herself and finally died...as she lived...as a child.

But the costumes, designed by Colombe Lauriot Prévost, were a joy. We had a heard of sheep baahing and dancing (of course the Brooklyn Youth Chorus), we had the Narrator, dressed as a donkey, an unashamed mugging Christian Gonon. We had the children again, dressed in the most lovely Medieval kids’s clothes, a pastel wonderland. And we had Thomas Blondelle as a wicked priest–and as Porcus the Pig of Pigs!!!

What were they doing here? We had the mock trial of Joan (yes, donkey and pig), the recollections of childhood and children’s tunes from Lorraine), we had the priests of the Inquisition. Even the tiny child, Dashel Gossman, as the King, paraded around with a crown.

Claudel’s libretto was part devotional, part dramatic, part corrosively sarctastic, part memory, part sacrifice. Was it cohesive? Perhaps not. But Honegger was such a master of taking words and turning them into long melodies, Bach-style counterpoint (and of course that Gallic sense of irony and satire when necessary) that the unity wasn’t as important as the effect.

Chorus, M. Cotillard (© Patrick Berger)

And that effect was given with the mastery of great acting by Marion Cotillard.

I once asked Ingrid Bergman what role had given her greatest pleasure. “Not pleasure, but the most emotional experience,” she answered. That was Joan of Arc at the Stake.” One feels that Ms. Cotillard, with her enormous cinematic range, essayed this with all her emotion readily naked for us to hear.

She started as the confused illiterate girl, taking inner refuge with Dominique. Ms. Cotillard, limited only with her stage platform, went through the mock trial, faced her accusers, mused whether she could return to childhood, and finally, through the voices of her saints, Catherine and Margaret, standing atop the risers, went to her death. She was humble and proud, bewildered, believing...

Not peacefully. Not like a saint. But in Claudel’s most brilliant moment, refusing to free herself from her chains. “The chains are love...and hope...” she cried.

The whole piece, lasting less than 80 minutes, has the sweep, the cinematic sweep where scenes change suddenly, actors mime, play cards, march about the stage, and yet we come back to Ms. Cotillard, the cynosure.

She and the New York Philharmonic. Wisely, though this was a drama of sorts, the orchestra was on the level as the actors and singers, for Honegger’s mastery of orchestral effects couldn’t be concealed. Alan Gilbert seems to relish these large-scale performances. With the same momentum that he can gone through the surrealistic Le Grand Macabre, he swept through the fierce excitement here.

It was, to my mind, unalterably stunning. To those looking for religious “twist”, the secular apology for belief, Joan of Arc might seem too devotional at the end. But never was it maudlin, neither Honegger nor Claudel ever detracted from this most human Joan/

Ms. Cotillard never made her a Saint. She was a creature of feeling, and whether the feeling was terror or joy, Honegger made that feeling its own reward. The fact that Mr. Gilbert took on this production never could give us the same sacred feeling, but we were rewarded. Not with the spirituality for which the nuns were searching, but with a visceral sense of poignancy and, yes, joy.

Harry Rolnick



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