|Kate Aldrich (mezzosoprano)|
Photo: Kathy Wittman
Aaron Keebaugh / Boston Classical Review
Type “Joan of Arc” into Google and you’ll call up a plethora of art works, operas, oratorios, and films dedicated to the French soldier and Catholic Saint. It’s easy to understand why hers is such a compelling story. Her strength in the face of adversity has earned her an enduring place among feminists, spiritual leaders, and military historians. Mark Twain called her “the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.” This season, Odyssey Opera will explore rarely heard works that tell of the life and times of Joan of Arc. The festival began in grand fashion Saturday night at Jordan Hall, where Gil Rose led the company in a concert performance of Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans. Tchaikovsky’s version of Joan’s story was the first of his operas to be staged outside of Russia. The historical narrative, big choruses, ballet sequences, and spiritual purity of the hero mixed French grand opera traditions and Wagnerian drama. Yet the work is not without its weaknesses. Tchaikovsky crafted the libretto from Friedrich Schiller’s Die Jungfrau von Orléans and biographical sketches of Joan’s life. Characters are not as rounded as one finds in the composer’s more popular Eugene Onegin and Queen of Spades, and plot points seem to turn on ideas that are not fully explored. Tchaikovsky’s Joan is driven by a spiritual vision in her fight to restore the throne of France during the Hundred Years’ War. She leads the French to victory, and the people and king marvel at her gifts of foresight. But Joan is brought down by her own father, Thibaut, who believes that she is doing the work of the devil. And, rather fickly, the people believe him with little question. But the opera’s greatest weakness is the brief love affair between Joan and Lionel, a Burgundian knight who fights for England. After meeting in battle in Act 3, the two became enraptured with one another. But in the next Act, Lionel is killed off, resulting in a character and subplot that come off as forced and unnecessary. Problems with the libretto aside, it is Tchaikovsky’s music that makes this opera into an involving drama.The Maid of Orleans has a lush and attractive score, and Saturday’s performance–4-1/2 hours with two intervals–was consistently excellent, with many of the soloists making their Odyssey Opera debuts. As Joan, Kate Aldrich sang with a rich voice that found the spiritual innocence of the character. Her “Lord of the Skies” sounded with prayerful radiance, and her most famous aria from the opera, “Farewell, beloved hills and meadows,” was dark and melting. In the brief role of Lionel, Aleksey Bogdanov found the bold strength of the battle-worn character. His love duet with Joan in Act 3 was achingly beautiful and made the most of their flash-in-the pan romance. Kevin Thompson’s powerful and penetrating baritone brought out the righteous conviction of Joan’s father, Thibaut. He had a convincing partner in Raymond, who hopes to marry Joan. In that role, Yeghishe Manucharyan sang with a soaring and fluent tenor voice. The French king Charles VII is driven nearly to depression over his losses in battle, and Kevin Ray’s smooth-toned tenor effectively captured the character’s dilemma. Another standout was David Kravitz, who sang with a full, smoky baritone as Charles’ knight, Dunois. Erica Petrocelli sang vibrantly as Charles’ beloved Agnès Sorel. Filling out the cast were Mikhail Svetlov and David Salsbery Fry, who sang capably in the roles of the Cardinal and a peasant respectively. The Odyssey Opera Chorus, prepared by William Cutter, conveyed the power and precision of the work’s many choruses. The women sounded graceful as a choir of angels who deliver visions to Joan, and the tenors provided moments of solace as soldiers and peasants. But the heroes of this performance were the members of the Odyssey Opera orchestra. Gil Rose wrung the energy from every page of the score, and the musicians answered with resonant playing in the overture, thundering power in the opening to Act 3, and rustic verve in the Act 2 ballet scenes. Great performances such as this one remind listeners that one doesn’t always need costumes and props to tell a vivid story. The music, when expertly played and sung, is enough.