Very few figures in history have inspired the level of interest and fascination that have been produced around Joan of Arc. A fifteenth-century French peasant-girl who was appointed to lead the armies of France against invasion from the English, Joan of Arc’s history and legend has been the basis of multiple artistic masterworks; Dutch baroque painting from Sir Peter Rubens, poetic verse from the Enlightenment satirist Voltaire, a novel from the great American author Mark Twain, and one of the greatest films of all time starring Renée Falconetti are only a few of the highlights.
Starting off, the overture of the performance led to the curtain-raising on the production, and it was an expertly-conducted work that gave the audience time to settle into the performance while recalling much of the style of Tchaikovsky’s other works in its musicology. The story of the opera goes through Joan of Arc’s initial abandonment of peasant life in rural France, her internal conflict after receiving angelic commands from God to lead the French army, the restoration of the French throne, and finally her capture and execution in an English witch-trial.
The acting/singing performances were expertly done, and I believe I recognized many of the same talents from the Opera Society’s previous the Italian-language opera Rigoletto earlier this year.
The structure of the narrative smoothly transitioned the narrative and the internal conflicts of the characters against the flow of the music. Of particular interest apart from the main narrative of Joan (expertly played by Hilary Ginther) was a segment in which the French nobility calls in a troupe of dancing jesters to perform for them, inviting an extended performance that both highlights the nobility’s desire for escapism while also breaking up the narrative for the audience without creating an additional intermission—a very expert narrative technique from Tchaikovsky.
The set-design of each scene, while following in the general convention of minimalism and imagination-dependence used in operatic performances with large numbers of actors, made great usage of highlighting the range of the scenes’ narrative importance. The scenes of Joan’s provincial childhood France highlighted an open-space that implicitly underscore the sense of freedom and security Joan would be leaving to lead the army, whereas the army battlefield scenes themselves used an almost abstract rendering of the chaos of the war.
The English-language translation made the performance more immediately accessible, though the usage of subtitles as in the Opera Society’s foreign-language productions also assisted in making the narrative easy to follow and may be essential without acutely listening to the inflection of the singers. The performance served as both a great introduction to the art of opera while also highlighting an artistic masterwork devoted to the most famous patron of The Crescent City.
The New Orleans Opera Society’s 2020 production of Joan of Arc occurred with two performances on Friday, February 7th and Sunday, February 9th. The Crescent would like to thank the Opera Society for their accommodations to the event.
Cover Photo: WWNO