Saturday 5 November 2011

Joan of Arc at the Stake

Last night (Friday) the LSO did a concert performance of Honnegger's dramatic oratorio at the Barbican. Even with the stage fully extended into the auditorium, the huge forces required filled the stage and there was no possibility of a semi-staged production, singers and actors had to be virtually static behind their stands. Though the house lights were dimmed and we were given dramatic lighting. This was very effective, but meant that programmes could not be read; for this reason perhaps, the libretto was not printed, there were just surtitles. (I did wonder whether the omission might have been from economy, as Claudel's work is stil in copyright). Now, this reliance on surtitles works well enough, but with no plot summary it was tricky to follow the work unless you knew it. Whilst the programme had an article on Joan of Arc by Marina Warner and a summary of the work's history, I felt that a break down of the scenes etc, would have been profoundly helpful.

The last time I saw the work was when it was done by Crouch End Festival Chorus, with the Mount View Theatre School, in a production which I remember as being simply but dramatically staged. This helps to work out what's going on. Otherwise, as the trial scene starts you might wonder who the hell is Porcus!

That said, the performance under Marin Alsop was excellent. Amira Casar was Jeanne d'Arc, lovely to look at, expressively dramatic but perhaps without the dramatic big-ness of vocal gesture (and sheer volume?) which the role needs. David Wilson Johnson took the spoken role of Frere Dominique (in fact at the first performance, the programme reminded us that the role was taken by the singer who had been the first Pelleas). Wilson-Johnson proved most expressive and developed an intimate dialogue with Casar. Nicolas Dorian and Mark Antoine were eminently watchable in the remaining spoken roles.

Tenor Paul Nilon was most effective as Porcus and the other tenor roles, Jonathan Lemalu's richly resonant bass voice did not really get sufficient exposure, but then again, Honegger's allocation of solo roles is curious. The three female singers, Klara Ek, Katherine Broderick and Kelly O'Connor, were not really used as much as I would have liked, but Broderick and O'Connor formed the heavenly duo of Joan's voices.

A big role goes to the chorus and this was vividly and dramatically taken by the London Symphony Chorus, on fine form. Alsop led the orchestra in an involving and richly coloured account of the work. Seated to one side of the stage we were able to get the full benefit of Cynthia Miller playing the Ondes Martenot.

I enjoyed the performance immensely, but I'm not sure that D. found it as involving; never having seen the work before and without the benefit of a staged performance, Honnegger and Claudel's rather distinctive mixture is rather exotic and can be difficult to apprehend.

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