Arkhipova, Radchenko, Valaitis, Moscow Radio SO. EMI LP SLS
Forêts,” Eileen Farrell, Thomas Schippers. [mono] EMI Angel
We know the story of Joan of Arc via the Shaw
play or perhaps the Honegger/Claudel oratorio. Our vision
of Joan is that of a mystic, a religious zealot, a person
who replaced sexuality with political and religious vision.
Hence this melodramatic casting of Joan as something of a
Victorian heroine who gets into trouble because she fails
to remain true to the conventional sexual ideals of her society
is something of a let-down, almost a blasphemy. Yet this
was what audiences of that time expected to see.
This work contains Tchaikovsky’s finest and most
deservedly famous operatic aria, “Prostitye vi, kholmi ...” — usually
sung in French as “Adieu, Forêts, ...” — where Joan bids
farewell to the simple natural life of her youth as she prepares
to embark on her patriotic crusade.
The opera begins quietly in the strings, but the
engineers sweeten this by slowly fading in the music. The
flute cadenza at the end of the overture is played by a soloist
on stage who then walks off as the players come on and the
lights come up. Joan is discovered watching maidens decorate
a sacred oak tree in her village square. Her father is concerned
that she is unmarried and will have no male protector in
the dangerous times ahead as the invading English army moves
deeper into France. A village swain protests his love and
Joan’s father urges her to accept him. No, she says, she
is destined for a different life. Then alarm bells are heard
and flames leap up from the horizon as terrified farmers
flood the village square. The English army is at hand, laying
siege to Orleans, burning fields and villages, led by the
evil General Salisbury (“Sol-lis-BOOR-rry’) at the mention
of whose name the villagers curse and spit. Some men come
in carrying the cross which they rescued from their burning
village church and set it upright. Joan walks over to the
cross and places herself against it. The people cry out to
God for help and lament their cruel fate. Joan begins to
sing prophecy, declaring that their Savior has heard their
pleas. Salisbury is dead! The siege will fail! A wounded
French soldier staggers on stage, the people ask him what
has happened, and he reports that Salisbury has indeed been
killed by a bullet fired from Orleans. Amazed and frightened
that Joan’s prophecy has been proven true, the people run
off. Joan sings her farewell to the simple country life.
Dark armored figures appear carrying swords, then the air
is filled with images of angels, and a group of winged white
robed women carrying swords in one hand and long sword-like
candles in the other come on to tell Joan that her hour has
come and she must take up arms and join the army in the field.
The dark silent knightly figures dress her in armor and present
her with her sword, and in a brilliant choral and orchestral
pageant the act comes to an end.
In Act II Joan obeys her voices and goes to the
as yet uncrowned Dauphin to lead him into Rheims and deliver
to him the crown of France. He is skeptical of her at first
but she convinces him and the court and the act ends in another
big choral number as the courtiers and the army under Joan’s
leadership march off to do in the British. So far we are
pretty close to the historical narrative.
But with Act III, the plot goes off into never-land.
Joan confronts the traitorous Lionel (sic), Duke of Burgundy,
and disarms him in single combat, but at the moment of her
striking the fatal blow their eyes meet and they fall suddenly,
madly, hopelessly, helplessly in love with each other. Unable
to kill each other, unable to leave each other, the Duke
surrenders to the French to be near his new beloved. But,
surprisingly, he is not sentenced to death for his treason
but only told to join the French forces and continue the
fight against the English. The next scene is a brilliant
pageant for the newly crowned French King Charles VII. Before
his grateful people and assembled courtiers, he forgives
all transgressors and asks Joan what earthly reward she wants
in return for her service. At that moment, Joan’s father
runs forward from the crowd and denounces his daughter as
an instrument of the Devil. He asks her if she is still pure.
In view of her affair with the Duke of Burgundy, the honest
girl cannot give an affirmative reply. The curtain falls
with half the assembled defending Joan and the rest calling
for her destruction as a witch.
After a lengthy orchestral entr’acte, at the beginning
of Act IV Joan in a dark robe sings of her love for Lionel.
He appears also in a dark robe, then the lovers shed their
dark coverlets to reveal white robes. Surrounded by girls
carrying candles the lovers embrace and sing a passionate
duet, aware that their pleasure will be short-lived. The
mysterious women from act I appear, telling Joan that she
has disobeyed heaven and must suffer torture and death, but
there is a place for her in heaven. Lionel asks Joan what
does she see? What does she hear? English soldiers enter
and surround Lionel with their spears; he sings his farewell.
Joan is seized and dragged off; Lionel is killed. The next
scene is the square in Rouen. Joan is in a pillory center-stage,
singing of her fear. King Charles is present but will not
look at her. The people offer her their sympathy. Joan sees
her angels and the ghost of Lionel before her. She asks for
a cross; no one will give her one, so Dunois tears the crucifix
from his neck, and Joan gives it to the ghost of Lionel.
The fire is lit and in a final bit of spectacular stagecraft
Joan sweeps up to heaven on a crest of orange flame.
Tchaikovsky died suddenly during a cholera epidemic
in Moscow at the age of 53. He might easily have lived another
15 productive years during which time he could have revised
this work and removed many of the shortcomings currently
in the scenario and score. He had expressed the desire to
do so, naming some of the changes in the story you or I might
come forth with. But as the work stands it is flawed.
Tchaikovsky’s music is always beautiful, emotional,
sensual, and well crafted, but the music in this opera is
not up to the standard set by the great ballets or the late
symphonies. And, unfortunately, like Rigoletto, Lucia
di Lammermoor, Pelléas et Melisande, Cosí fan
Tutte, and Turandot, this opera has a stupid plot
that, however many opportunities it may give for fine music,
offends the mind. If you have no problem with Rigoletto, Lucia,
or Turandot, then you will probably have no problem
with Maid of Orleans and what I’ve said is irrelevant.
I envy you, for you can enjoy this performance more than
I can. This is a very personal judgment. I find little problem
with Pelléas, Turandot or The Ring because
they’re mythological stories, and aren’t supposed to make
rational sense, only allegorical sense, which they do. I
have no problem with the (allegorical?) libretto to Barber’s Vanessa,
whereas some find it intolerably silly. And many find those
operas with excellent plots, such as Boris Godunov, Il
Rittorno d’Ulisse in Patria, and Nozze di Figaro,
to be tedious and confusing. And so it goes. It has been
said that a perfect opera is not merely extremely difficult,
it is impossible, so we content ourselves with various degrees
of compromise in this most affecting and most imperfect of
all art forms.
Great music could sweep aside all these concerns
as it does, for example, in Cosí fan Tutte, but Tchaikovsky
wrote this opera at the time of the composition of the First
Orchestral Suite - as I argued in a recent essay actually
the fifth of his works in symphonic form - a not terribly
inspired period in his composing career. While the music
is very good and, as in the case of the first act aria mentioned
above, occasionally exceptional, overall it is unmemorable.
The big triumphal scenes owe a lot to Aïda and Samson
et Dalila and come perilously close to outright imitation.
Tchaikovsky thought this opera would make him popular and
indeed he was called for 28 curtain calls at the premiere.
However, the press, under the control of the Russian nationalist
school, savaged the opera as excessively Germanic. For the
first performance Joan was sung by a soprano, but in 1882
Tchaikovsky rewrote the part for mezzo, extensively touched
up the orchestration, and restored some of the changes and
cuts made at the premier. This later version is the one always
We are grateful to the amazingly talented craftsmen
and singing actors at the Bolshoi Theater for their efforts
to produce through this performance the finest presentation
that this work can afford and bring us so very close to the
composer’s vision as he might ultimately have been able to
Vyacheslav Pochapsky is a man born to the theater.
With his amazingly expressive face and responsive body he
puts his whole life-energy into the character. His body language
is that of a gymnast and power lifter; that he should in
addition possess a powerful, rich, and controlled bass voice
is almost too much to ask. The baggy costume cannot conceal
his trained athlete’s body, put in evidence by the several
breathtaking pratfalls he executes live on stage where no
stunt double can relieve the actor of his peril. His name
alone among the cast should make you want to investigate
any video performance.
Nina Rautio has a clear, light mezzo-soprano voice
entirely in keeping with her portrayal of the young, naive,
slightly boyish Joan. Oleg Kulko’s excellent characterization
of the fey, uxorious, listless Charles VII is in complete
contrast with his recent performance as the masculine, heroic,
stalwart, idealistic Prince Jaromir in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mlada.
Maria Gavrilova’s characterization of the faithful, sacrificing,
slightly naive Agnes Sorel would never prepare you for her
portrayal of the sly, cruel, scheming, deceptive, vindictive
Princess Voislava, also in Mlada. Others in the cast
are equally distinguished. The stagecraft is exceptional.
The beautiful performances of the chorus and orchestra are
totally committed. This is great opera theater; given a great
opera, the result would be miraculous.
Yevgeny Onyegin, Pikovaya Dama,
and Mazeppa are generally considered Tchaikovsky’s
best operas and have been extensively performed and recorded
in the West as well as in Russia. Iolanta, his least
celebrated opera was recorded some time ago by Rostropovich
in Paris, but the recording disappeared quickly. Kuznets
Vakula and Orleanskaya Dieva have been performed
and recorded only in Russia. Operatic fragments and other
unpublished works exist.
Probably no audience was actually present during
this recording as there is no applause or other audience
sound, and the use of a camera crane in the orchestra for
elevated viewing angles would have interfered with the audience
seeing the stage, even as it heightens the visual variety
and drama. The orchestra pit lighting is stage bright so
we can see the musicians — and they can see their music — clearly.
Farrell and Arkhipova sing beautifully, of course,
and with wrenching drama, but so does Rautio. Arkhipova sounds
more mature, more traditionally theatrical, her performance
certainly to be treasured. But especially for this production
of this opera the visual element is extremely important and
this DVD is the overwhelming recommendation.
(* Scurrilous rumor has it that this is the very
recording session where Schippers addressed her as “Madame
Farrell” and she addressed him as “Tommy Cocksucker”. However
both artists’ official biographies attest to their long term
good working relations.)