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Norman DELLO JOIO (1913-2008)
The Triumph of Saint Joan symphony (1952) [27.08]
The Trial at Rouen (1956) [91.59]
Heather Buck (soprano) – Joan, Stephen Powell (baritone) – Pierre Cauchon, Luke Scott (baritone) – Father Julien, Ryan Stoll (bass-baritone) – Jailer, Jeremy Ayres Fisher (tenor) – Soldier,
Odyssey Opera, Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose
rec. Jordan Hall, Boston, 24 January 2018: Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts, 3 December 2017
BMOP SOUND 1073 [62.14 + 56.53]

The short and tragic career of Joan of Arc seems to have had a considerable fascination for artists in the first half of the twentieth century, possibly provoked by her belated canonisation by the Roman Catholic Church of the Maid of Orleans as a Saint some half a millennium after she had been burnt as a heretic or a witch (the English civil authorities who carried out the sentence appear to have been largely indifferent to the exact nature of her charge). But there was also, as George Bernard Shaw pointed out in his preface to his play on the subject, a close parallel to many twentieth century preoccupations about the proper role of women in society, as well as the links between the career of Joan and the slowly emerging philosophies of nationalism, patriotism and even Protestantism. Joan seemed fascinatingly to have feet in both the mediaeval world and the modern one, and Shaw by a stroke of genius appended an extensive epilogue to his play where the characters in her life (and afterwards) pass her brief biography in historical perspective before their emphatic and indeed embarrassed rejection of her central message of salvation through faith. Indeed such was the popular reputation of Joan of Arc that Noël Coward could make reference to it in his 1942 ‘improbable farce’ Blithe Spirit, where the harassed husband tries to explain to his deceased wife:
“CHARLES: I might just as easily have been talking about Joan of Arc, but that doesn’t mean that I wanted her to come and live with me.
ELVIRA: As a matter of fact she’s rather fun.”

But while the playwrights and dramatists may have found plentiful material for their pens in the life of the new saint, musical treatments are harder to find. Indeed, when setting Blithe Spirit as an opera this year, I had to substitute a completely different sort of recognisable musical satire by substituting the character (and thematic references) of Madam Butterfly. A considerable number of major composers have tackled the theme – Verdi, Tchaikovsky, John Foulds and Honegger, although Braunfels’s opera was not performed until 2001 – but none of them have produced anything which has firmly lodged itself in the general mainstream of musical consciousness. Norman Dello Joio, an American composer of Italian ancestry, was clearly fascinated by the life of Joan and demonstrated this by the production of not one but two full-scale operas on the topic. Moreover, we are assured that the music of these two operas was entirely distinct; the second was not simply a revision or reworking of the first. However, the first seems to have vanished altogether except for the symphony that the composer constructed from its material and published under the title The Triumph of Saint Joan. This symphony has led a largely independent life since then, rather in the same way as Hindemith’s symphonies from Mathis der Maler and Die Harmonie der Welt, and indeed it has been recorded a couple of times before. (Incidentally there was confusingly enough also a Dello Joio ballet entitled Seraphic Dialogue on the selfsame subject, but this was adapted by Martha Graham from the composer’s Serenade for orchestra and need not detain us here.) It also appears that one or two passages from the earlier opera may have found their way into the revised version of the second given in New York in 1959; this appears to be the version we hear in this recording.

The composer, a devout Catholic, constructed his own libretto for The Trial at Rouen, drawing to some extent on contemporary mediaeval records of the trial, a procedure which leads at a couple of points to startling parallels with the dialogue in Shaw where the playwright has had recourse to the same original material. But it has to be said that Dello Joio’s dramatic instincts are not a patch on those of his Irish rival. Shaw creates a living breathing human being out of Joan, and surrounds her with characters of individuality, each in possession not only of their own viewpoint but their own personality. Dello Joio’s Joan is more conventionally hagiographic, innocent and inspired by turns but without the sense of inner purpose which so attracted and repulsed her contemporaries. And his other protagonists are mere cardboard – the upright and priggish Cauchon, the sympathetic but ineffectual Father Julien, and the brutish jailer whose sole purpose seems to be to sneer at his unfortunate prisoner. There is also an English soldier introduced in the brief opening scene to establish the background, who vanishes immediately he has served that purpose. The other characters are reduced to a bevy of inquisitors and spectators whose sole purpose seems to be to provide something for the chorus to do apart from the representation of angelic voices, and whose contributions are the least effectual element of the score.

The merits of the opera – and they are many – are therefore largely musical. The vocal writing is effective, well suited to the voices, and rises to impassioned emotional heights when required. The orchestral writing is even better, atmospheric and grandiose by turns and lending a real sense of occasion to the momentous proceedings. The only point at which it fails is at the very end. The composer rightly recognises that a transcendent ecstatic climax as the saint is condemned to the flames would be simply unacceptable nowadays – modern audiences know too well that the messy business of burning somebody alive is not something that could ever be regarded as romantic – but, where Shaw sensibly kept the whole business offstage (and improbably quick), here Dello Joio chooses to focus not on Joan herself but on the enigmatic figure of Peter Cauchon who looks on with satisfaction as the demands of justice are satisfied. Now this might just about be acceptable if we had been encouraged to sympathise with the character earlier in the proceedings, but on the contrary his portrayal has been such as to emphasise the brutish nature of his prejudices (which afterwards afforded such relish to those detractors who emphasised the similarity of his name to the French word for “pig” – Paul Claudel’s libretto for Honegger delights in this vulgar pun). The result, both dramatically and musically, is to leave the ending of the opera decidedly depressing and downbeat – not at all, one imagines, what the composer would have wished or intended. I find myself wondering how he handled the same situation in his earlier opera – certainly, if the symphony is any sort of guide, the result would have been quite different and much more effective in musical terms.

The sense of dramatic imbalance is hardly helped by the fact that the two scenes of the opera – the first set in Joan’s prison cell and the second during the trial itself – are quite distinct in tone, and that three of the principal characters in the first disappear from view altogether in the second. One would certainly have expected Father Julien who defends Joan from the predatory attentions of her jailer to have made his presence felt during the trial itself, and his failure to do so leaves a gaping hole in the dramatic fabric of the whole. This is all the more the case in this performance when Luke Scott gives such as sterling performance, his warm and firm voice ringing out in declamation and denunciation with a real sense of heroism. Mind you, Stephen Powell as Cauchon is also the possessor of a fine bass voice, and he carefully avoids the twin perils of sounding either woolly or trenchant as he denounces Joan – he almost makes you believe in the innate good intentions of the character, although the exact nature of Joan’s heresy is never made very explicit. As Joan herself, Heather Buck begins with a rather small voice – a frightened country maid rather than a heroic figure – and she maintains this characterisation throughout even when towards the end she grows into the stature of sainthood as she confronts her doom. This is no goddess-like Brünnhilde striding confidently to meet her immolation; the character is a real woman with real fears, and although there are moments when Dello Joio seems to be expecting something more superhuman Buck maintains a sense of real character throughout. It is so often the case with operatic casting of neglected works that the singers prove to be inadequate for roles written with more substantial voices in the mind of their composers, and it is a delight to report that Gil Rose has succeeded in avoiding any such pitfall; even Ryan Stoll as the jailer, with his uncouth laughter, strikes a thoroughly realistic note in the portrayal of his character, and Jeremy Ayres Fisher makes a nice opening vignette of his wistful little song. The chorus members of Odyssey Opera too are well-tuned and portrayed, and even manage to make something of their strictly functional occasional solo lines as inquisitors.

The presentation of the discs is everything that one could wish; two discs in a gatefold sleeve with a detachable booklet insert giving full notes and texts. It appears from the Odyssey Opera website that the recording derives from a live semi-staged performance – although there is no audible evidence of audience noise or stage movement. But the sound is excellent, the balance between voices and orchestra superbly judged, and the committed portrayals convey all the sense of movement and spectacle that one might anticipate. The performance of the symphony, which precedes the first scene of the opera on CD1, is far superior in sound to the old 1952 première recording under Robert Whitney, but the 1995 recording under James Sedares on Koch has perhaps a little more verve in terms of orchestral playing. On the other hand that CD is coupled much less interestingly with the academic-sounding Chaconne, Variations and Fugue; so to a very large extent this double set, including all of Dello Joio’s surviving music inspired by Joan of Arc, is a much more attractive proposition. And even despite its dramatic deficiencies, it is a thoroughly enjoyable and indeed inspiring experience.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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