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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 - 1893)
Orleanskaya Dieva (Maid of Orleans, or Joan of Arc) - opera in four acts (1879)
Text by the composer after Schiller, tr. Zukovsky
Joan of Arc - Nina Rautio
King Charles VII - Oleg Kulko
Agnes Sorel - Maria Gavrilova
Archbishop - Gleb Nicolsky
Lionel - Vladimir Redkin
Dunois - Mikhail Krutikov
Thibaut - Vyacheslav Pochapsky
Raymond - Arkady Mishenkin
Bertrand - Maksim Mikhailov
Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Aleksandr Lazarev
Designer, Valery Levental; Lighting, Alan Woolford; Video Direction, Brian Large.
rec. Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, Russia, June 1993.
Subtitles in English, Deutsch, Castellano, Français, Italiano, Portugués, Japanese.
Notes in English. Track list, synopsis, no texts or translations.
NTSC 4:3. Dolby Digital 48kHz 16 bit 2.0 stereo. Region 2,3,4,5.
Region 1 edition available from Kultur video
WARNER MUSIC VISION NVC ARTS 4509-94191-2 [149.00]

Comparison recordings (audio-only):
Rozhdestvensky, Arkhipova, Radchenko, Valaitis, Moscow Radio SO. EMI LP SLS 852.
“ Adieu, Forêts,” Eileen Farrell, Thomas Schippers. [mono] EMI Angel LP *
 
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 performed now.
 
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 express it.
 
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.)
 
Paul Shoemaker
 

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