Joan of Arc has accrued an impressive CV since she was burned at the stake in the market-place at Rouen in 1431 – an international mix of plays, operas, novels and films have used her life, trial and martyrdom to suit a broad spectrum of spiritual and political agendas, and her status as France’s national heroine and patron saint must make the currently Euro-conflicted French rather wistful for past glories.
Arthur Honegger’s oratorio Joan of Arc at the Stake was nurtured in the period leading up to the Second World War, and its extended – rather too extended, some may feel – ‘Prologue, a monumental de profundis
cry of help lamenting “the chaos of souls and hearts” emphasises the despair projected onto Joan’s innocence and her betrayal.
Honegger may have belonged to the Parisian group of composers, Les Six, but he was completely out of sympathy with their supporter Erik Satie, and there was the reserve of his Swiss-Protestant upbringing to keep him and his music at one remove from the worldly sophistication of the other two of the group, Milhaud and Poulenc, whose music still endures. Paul Claudel’s libretto is, though, very French, in that lofty, orotund tone that so distinguishes Gallic public declamation.
The music has a heart-on-sleeve warmth and directness, with a few set-pieces such as Joan’s trial and apotheosis, to give shape to its 90-minute span, and is far from being relegated to reacting to the spoken dialogue between Brother Dominic and Joan, which reviews in flashback the events of her life leading up to her death – much of it has considerable impact.
The lion’s share of the work goes to Joan and her spiritual guide Brother Dominic. Amira Casar, who radiates that instantly recognisable, chic, gamine, Parisian defiance and vulnerability, was magnificent as Joan, using a raw, declamatory style to great effect, and she was a great foil to the excellent David Wilson-Johnson, unfortunately for us not singing, but injecting in impeccably idiomatic Gallic breadth of imagination, compassion and comic relief into Dominic. The two other speakers, juggling a number of cameo roles with impressive legerdemain
, were delivered in just as fine style by Nicolas Dorian (who, in his biography, owns up to representing Belgium in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest) and Mark Antoine (a presenter on a French children’s TV programme), who at one point gave us a surreally pantomimic exchange between a peasant husband and wife.
Paul Nilon sung the role of Porcus, the judge of the trial – Joan’s trial, meticulously recorded, was conducted by the Bishop of Beauvais, Pierre Cauchon (Cauchon, cochon, porcus), the pun being Claudel’s idea – with spirited conviction, and Jonathan Lemalu, with no specific roles to play, was in fine voice. Katherine Broderick and Kelley O’Connor gave Marguerite and Catherine, the saints who appeared to Joan and set her on her mission, a vivid presence. Broderick’s powerful soprano becomes more and more impressive; O’Connor’s voice had a strong contralto colour and solidity that was very attractive. As the Virgin, Klara Ek sang with purity.
Marin Alsop, a great champion of the work, conducted with huge theatrical flair, laying out the detail of its visionary progress with incredible affection – you could imagine many a French tear welling up with nationalist pride at the references to the beauties of Normandy. The orchestral flavour is very particular – no horns but three saxophones – and the use of the ondes Martenot is especially telling, comically onomatopoeic in the ass’s contribution to the trial and giving ecstatic highlights to the great climaxes, expertly and subtly played by Cynthia Millar. The choral singing had thrilling immediacy.