Here it is, my 100th opera review!
Grand Opera in four acts. Running Time: 2 hours 52 minutes.
Although Tchaikovsky wrote more music for The Enchantress, this was his most expansive and ambitious work. Written in the style of French grand opera, it isn’t very successful, although it does provide an opportunity to hear obviously medieval French characters in a gothic setting singing in Russian, which in itself is probably worth the trouble for its quasi-Cosmopolitan novelty. It requires massive stage resources for it to be believable and if so it can be striking. But a warning must be issued, this opera has to be watched, not just listened to, otherwise the last two acts are just a mixture of bombastic and ornery mush. This review is of the Moscow, 1969 recording conducted by Rozhdestvensky with Irina Arkhipova in the title role.
PLOT: Domremy, Chinon, Paris, Rouen, and a forest between all four, circa 1430. Oft told story of how Joan is called upon by heaven to save France from English invasion. Her dad, named Thibault here, tries to discredit her at the King’s coronation. The only difference here is she falls for a Burgundian knight named Lionel and this leads to her downfall.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: Before the church at Domremy. (46 minutes)
4, 8: The prelude has two good moments after a long bout of lyrical if seemingly derivative string music, the first is a patch of stormy Tchaikovsky symphonic music which will be repeated in the siege chorus later on in the act but which is followed immediately by the second and best: the jubilant introduction of Joan’s prayer * which will end the act and IS the best number in the entire opera, otherwise it is a serviceable dud consisting of patches of woodwinds moving about aimlessly and ornery brass outbursts on a bed of strings. An aimless (and pointless) flute solo ends the proceedings. There is then an opening chorus of placid French peasant girls * and a patch of recitative for Joan’s father Thibault and her betrothed Raymond which becomes a rather uneventful trio with Joan and the two men already in her life (more to come). Although there are moments of orchestral fury (particularly in the violins) there isn’t really much to comment on other than plot forwarding.
18: The peasants come on in a fury, Paris has been taken and Orleans is under siege *. It falls into the same category as the first chorus in Gotterdammerung. It tries desperately to be exciting, and is fast and furious, but otherwise falls miserably flat.
23, 26: The first trace of things starting to lighten up appears with a holy hymn from Joan & Co. ** with a nice harp accompaniment, **. An energetic six minutes.
35: Joan says goodbye to her village. Much of this is ornery although it eventually does come together, if not all that tunefully *.
41: The finale is a wonderful prayerful sequence in which Joan either has a hallucination or a visitation of angels directly from heaven telling her to free Orleans ***. It is utterly beautiful, if somewhat madness-enducing, with a single solid tune which you will thirst to have repeated over and over again but Tchaikovsky teases it to the point that total satisfaction never comes, and it is somewhat out of place with the surroundings.
ACT 2: Le Chateau de Chinon. (59 minutes)
0: The entr’acte is a remarkably lyrical composition which ends in near madness **.
3: This is stopped dead by some minstrels and their tuneful, if low temperature song *. Although both what they are singing and what is going on in the pit are both nice they seem to be unconnected.
6, 17: King Charles addresses his mistress Agnes Sorel in the most European-sounding recitative in all Russian opera, and this is just as quickly followed by a three part ballet sequences. The first, a gypsy dance is rather good ** and feels familiar. This is followed by a quieter dance of the pages and dwarfs and then a furious dance of clowns and tumblers is probably most notable for its flute solo and its climactic ending **. Some of this does seem to be just loud banging “effects without cause” but the two sections highlighted are the best of the lot. Two knights arrive, one Lauret, dies, the other Dunois tries to rouse the procrastinating king to action (no effect although furious). The tenor whining of the king is getting to be slightly annoying (how is it that only tenors can invoke whininess?).
21: Dunois’ duet with the King is somewhat surprising for how low the tenor can go (he almost growls at times) and still it is all furious **.
31: The Charles-Agnes love duet actually starts off with an aria for Agnes **. Their duettino is rather an exercise in vocal gymnastics, but pretty in its own mild way *.
36: The arrival of Joan **, brassy fanfare galore followed by the Archbishop’s narration (sad, not menacing but rather piteous) and tuneless until a chorus of maidens comes on.
41, 48: The entrance of Joan ** and her dialogue with the King and finally her narration in which she declares that the source of her power is a virginity vow with the divine ***. Traces of her scene with the angels in act one pop in and out of this sequence, also notice the chromatic scales in the flute and harp.
54: The Archbishop, Joan, and the King (along with Agnes) lead the people in a magnificent prayer/finale ***. Charles is ready for war, and declares Joan commander of the French army. So far so good….
ACT 3 (45 minutes)
Scene 1: A forest
0: Battle rages on in the entr’acte *, furious and loud, and in the scene that follows we remain in Valkyrie territory for some time. Joan defeats Lionel, a Burgundian soldier who is fighting on the side of the English. She spares his life and somehow they fall in love. (This is a violation of Joan’s divine vow of virginity and thus is the end of her power).
7: The Joan-Lionel duet is an ornery experience * with woodwinds, brass, and strings fluttering about twitterpatting. Most of the time Joan is crying out like a Valkyrie that her life is over now that she has fallen in love with a human male. Although Lionel makes attempts at musical warmth, it simply isn’t here.
Scene 2: Rheims.
15: If Verdi was too sedate about the coronation of Charles VII, Tchaikovsky went WAY too far in the exact opposite direction here *. There is little melody and mostly just grotesque bombast. Although admittedly a march, there isn’t much of that either although the chorus with their constant cries of “Slava! Slava!” are rather effective. There seem to be traces of The Sleeping Beauty and reminders of previous music in the opera as well as a desperate attempt at trying to out do Wagner’s Rienzi or something. This goes on for eight solid minutes and I frankly had to lower the volume because it was getting to be too much. The cathedral organ meanders chromatically as Thibault and Raymond come on and duet for a bit in the most cluttered way. Thibault wants to discredit Joan in front of everyone because he thinks she is demonically possessed.
28: The second (post)-coronation chorus *. The organ music following is must more placid and restful.
32: Charles addresses the people *, at least it is more sedate than anything else in the act.
35: But the peace is shattered by Joan screaming that her father has arrived, and no one is happy about this. Thibault denounces her as a witch *, but we quickly return to low temp ornery again.
38: The one nice number in the act is a septette with the melody going to Agnes ***. When the Archbishop asks Joan to deny the charges there is a clap of ornery thunder and Joan has to remain silent because of her love for Lionel violating her pact with God, so everyone dumps her. The act ends with a exchange between Lionel and Joan in which he vows his eternal love and she tries to reject him.
ACT 4 (22 minutes)
Scene 1: A forest, again.
0, 7: Why do Lionel and Joan keep meeting up in the woods? It’s a little weird, but anyways, the entr’acte gives the false impression that it will be quiet, but no, it turns bombastic just like everything else *. Joan has given in to Lionel, sort of. Much of their “love duet” is taken up by Joan’s Valkyrie cries and not much from Lionel. The duet itself is rather low temperature * as Joan tries to find how loud she can be. This is obviously Tchaikovsky trying to depict Joan’s struggle between her faith and her sexual desire for Lionel, but one must ask, why is this happening at all? It has no historical justification. What purpose does any of it serve? And why is the music so fragmentary?
10: The situation is saved from utter disaster by the arrival of the angelic messenger that declares that because Joan has given into earthly temptation she will be destroyed by the English ** (they apparently operate a heavenly dead squad). The arrest of Joan/death of Lionel is understated by Tchaikovsky and probably works better on stage than it does listening to a studio recording.
Scene 2: Rouen, at the steak ( ! just kidding, stake).
14: The march to the stake is anything but, an almost calm piece of orchestral interluding * with chromatic flutes and harps dancing about amid a sea of despondent strings as the chorus watches on.
19: The flames start to leap up (brass, flutes, harp, strings). Although bombastic and furious, there is really nothing else to the finale * and it is rather uneventful unless one is observing the execution on stage, but for those of us at home listening to a recording, we will not get it.
Let me start by saying that up to a point I like this opera. The first two acts actually have a lot of melodic beauty and the second act in particular consists of a succession of good numbers, albeit cluttered with a variety of grand opera features (including a not too bad multi-movement ballet). The best music revolves around Joan and her connection with heaven, but this one hit wonder of the angelic theme (however often repeated and a minor blockbuster it be) is not enough to save the show. I will add, however, that the opera does move swiftly in spite of its almost three hours length although by the last two acts things do get a bit boring regardless of the rapid succession of tableaux in the last two acts (four in less than seventy minutes), which does make everything feel rather episodic and rushed by the finale, which has to be watched and not listened to in order to truly be effective. In an aside, the role of Agnes Sorel must be highlighted for its beauty.
Thibault’s denouncement of his daughter is pointless and not all that dramatically effective either. What is worse, the third act in particular lacks any inspiration and consists mostly of loud bombastic orchestra tricks. The duet between Thibault and Raymond, although giving the two singers something to do after their act one appearance, was actually rejected after the first performance by Eduard Napravnik, the conductor of the premiere to whom the score was dedicated, ouch!
Tchaikovsky displays two dangerous tendencies in this opera, one is over-indulging in extremely loud orchestral features (particularly in the last two acts where he appears to have run out of steam). Another is his tendency to overemphasis Agnes (in revisions made to the score in the 1880s and 1890s she was the sole soprano principle with Joan reduced to mezzo-soprano). In the two scenes she is in, Agnes is in fact the prima donna. This appears to be because of historical misadventure, the first “soprano” who sang Joan almost destroyed her voice trying to engage in the Wagnerian declamation Tchaikovsky produced.
Introducing Lionel in act 3 is rather odd as it is the key event driving Joan’s fate and happens more than 60% of the way through the opera, by which time all of the worthwhile music has past over. It would have been more interesting for Lionel to turn out to be Satan, succeeding in having Joan fail in keeping her vow, than either of Tchaikovsky’s scenarios (for him to either betray her to the English after she spurns him or for him to die attempting to shield her from the English as happens in the opera). To have such an important character (and a love interest at that) to arrive so late is simply bizarre, and dare I say it, tacked on? Although it possesses one solidly golden heavenly melody and the first two (longer) acts are good, and is not the rambling post-Wagnerian exercise of The Enchantress (incidentally the libretto here is by Tchaikovsky himself) the dramatic and musical weaknesses of the last two episodic acts drag this opera down to a B-.