By Jeremy Eichler — September 18, 2017
The life and legend of the 15th-century French heroine Joan of Arc has inspired an extraordinary number of artists and creators over the years, from Mark Twain to Arcade Fire, from Friedrich Schiller to the makers of “The Simpsons.”
Composers, too, have felt the pull of the saint and seer, with enough musical and operatic tributes to fill, well, an entire season of performances by Odyssey Opera. That’s right — this Boston-based company is dedicating its current season to tracing Joan of Arc as operatic muse across two centuries of music, with works by Tchaikovsky, Donizetti, Norman Dello Joio, Honegger, and Verdi.
Giving rarities their due has been at the center of Odyssey’s mission from the outset, but this way of building out an entire year under a single thematic banner takes this type of programming to a whole new level. It brings a certain cohesiveness to a season’s journey, and allows for the works to speak not only to audiences but also to one another. In short, hats off to Odyssey artistic director Gil Rose for dreaming this project up. With this season’s offering, he has truly outdone himself.
The Joan of Arc voyage began this Saturday night in Jordan Hall with an impassioned concert performance of Tchaikovsky’s opera “The Maid of Orléans.” This was the composer’s fifth opera, written right after “Eugene Onegin.” It premiered in St. Petersburg in 1881 to popular though not critical acclaim. The composer Cesar Cui described it as “a weak work of a fine and gifted musician, ordinary, monotonous, dull and long . . . with flashes of brighter, vivid music, and even those are echoes from other operas.”
Based on how rarely this opera is performed today, posterity seems to have agreed with Cui’s assessment, but that does not mean the work is without its fascinations. And indeed, one of Odyssey Opera’s main goals is to give listeners a chance to judge these neglected works for themselves.
Tchaikovsky assembled the libretto himself from multiple sources including a Russian translation of Schiller’s “Die Jungfrau von Orléans.” And working in fits and starts, he created a juggernaut of a score, with Joan’s tale parceled into four capacious acts, each of which demands vast performance forces. While the piece as a whole does come across as a rather curious amalgam of French, German, and Russian elements, you can feel the composer’s affection for his subject in every measure.
On Saturday night, there were enough compellingly dramatic moments to sustain the enthusiasm of a full Jordan Hall across all four hours of Odyssey’s performance. That was thanks in part to the charismatically drawn and vocally radiant performance of Kate Aldrich in the challenging title role. The top of Aldrich’s range had the strength to cut through the giant orchestra and to project her character’s religious fervor and mystical intensity, while the persistent warmth of her singing conveyed Joan’s vulnerability at the hands of her stern and ultimately cruel father Thibaut (here sung by a formidable Kevin Thompson). The rest of this ensemble cast was strong from top to bottom, with Aleksey Bogdanov a standout for his resonant, flexible baritone as the Burgundian Knight Lionel.
From the podium Rose led the large orchestra and chorus in what amounted to a triumph of stamina and execution. Woodwind solos sparkled, and the orchestra as a whole played with far more confidence and conviction than you’d expect for a one-off performance of a rare and challenging score. At the end of the night, the crowd’s ovation was robust, appreciative — and well-deserved.
Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orléans
At Jordan Hall, Sept. 16
“Throughout the evening, the big Odyssey Opera Chorus was in terrific voice. They took on a number of characters – peasants, soldiers, and crowds – singing them all with precision and energy. … In all, Saturday’s performance ranked – with 2014’s Die tote Stadt and last year’s Dimitrij – among Odyssey’s finest and most artistically satisfying undertakings.”
“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. … 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.”