by Steven Pisano
Oratorios are a tricky business. On the one hand, it can seem unsettling for a symphony orchestra to present an oratorio, which has a great deal of purely spoken dialogue not accompanied by music. And yet, because the drama is usually more suggestive than explicit, there is often not enough “action” for an opera company to produce it without it seeming skimpily staged. (Peter Sellars' St. Matthew Passion with the Berlin Phil was a rare exception to the rule.)
The New York Philharmonic’s final production of the season is Swiss composer Arthur Honegger’s 1930s oratorio, Joan of Arc at the Stake (Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher). This week's four performances have all been sold out for some time, presumably thanks to the presence of Academy Award-winning actor Marion Cotillard in the title role. Cotillard is spellbinding as Joan, the young “Maid of Orleans” who led France to victory in an important battle of the Hundred Years’ War, only to be captured and burned alive at the stake. Watching Cotillard's performance on Wednesday, I knew I was in the presence of something very special.
The singers and actors playing the supporting roles all performed with conviction and personal passion. Most notable was Éric Génovèse as Joan’s fantasized advisor Brother Dominique, a spoken role. He reassures and comforts Joan, and seems to represent the Church’s belief that the voices Joan hears are truly sacred in nature. Throughout much of the production, Génovèse and Cotillard stood center stage on a raked platform that projected out toward the audience. All of the other action, both physical and musical, swirled around them.
Equally impressive were the New York Choral Artists and the young and talented Brooklyn Youth Chorus. NY Phil Music Director Alan Gilbert’s control was sure-handed from start to finish. A noted specialist in 20th century music, one had the sense that among recent Philharmonic directors, only Gilbert had the chops to pull this off.
Honegger creates a truly moving musical journey as we watch Joan look back on her life from the moment just before the flames were lit below her; the music was at turns rousingly muscular and tenderly lyrical. Paul Claudel’s libretto follows the slim facts of the story without much deviance, providing Honegger with the narrative he needed.
When the pyre was lit, the entire stage, ceiling, and walls of Avery Fisher Hall all turned a fiery red, with Joan apparently untouched by the flames, still bathed in celestial white light at the center of the blaze. It was a stark scenic image that will remain burned in my memory for a long time, like the legend of Joan of Arc herself.
More photos can be seen here.