thu 28/01/2021

Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher, London Symphony Orchestra, Alsop, Barbican Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher, London Symphony Orchestra, Alsop, Barbican Hall

Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher, London Symphony Orchestra, Alsop, Barbican Hall

Fine performance can't hide the musical trash in Honegger's portrait of Joan of Arc

Honegger's meditation on Joan doesn't come close to Dreyer's detailed filmed portrayal, pictured above

Honegger's gaudy 1935 meditation on the life of Joan of Arc - which we witnessed in concert last night at the Barbican - is an untidy flea market of meretricious musical ideas. The work's only value lies in it being able to make one understand why the likes of Pierre Boulez felt forced to make their postwar musical revolutions so sweeping and so violent.

Honegger's gaudy 1935 meditation on the life of Joan of Arc - which we witnessed in concert last night at the Barbican - is an untidy flea market of meretricious musical ideas. The work's only value lies in it being able to make one understand why the likes of Pierre Boulez felt forced to make their postwar musical revolutions so sweeping and so violent. The sort of musical slime that the interwar French Neo-Classicists like Honegger left behind - one of the worst examples of which is his Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake) - required an industrial-strength response.

This was as fine an outing as Honegger's tawdry oratorio would ever get

Qualitatively, the music and libretto of Jeanne walk hand in hand. Paul Claudel's words mostly stumble around in a pompous poetic fog. Every now and again they snatch at something solid and tacky, to which Honegger never fails to respond with bitty, foursquare trash of deadening literalness. The drama lurches between the banal and the pretentious. The first 10 minutes are given over to establishing Joan's name. The next 10 sink into a sleep-inducing philosophical ponderousness. And to think of the detail, the emotions, the hardheaded political and historical truths that Carl Theodor Dreyer conjures up with the same subject matter a decade earlier, using the most basic film techniques.

Yet this was no dud performance. This was as fine an outing as Honegger's tawdry oratorio would ever get. Nicolas Dorian (who, rather excitingly, represented Belgium in the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest) and sparring partner Mark Antoine (a French TV presenter) messed around with great theatrical panache in their various minor comic roles, most of which were simple caricatures of Joan's enemies. Was this perhaps a pre-emptive propagandistic strike by a patriot against France's tub-thumping neighbours? Before one could even begin to care, another tinselly, syncopated, ondes Martenot-capped wave swept over us. 

The women (Katherine Broderick, Kelley O'Connor and Klara Ek) - representing various saints and angels - were all very fine. Paul Nilon delivered his fast patter with brilliance. Jonathan Lemalu offered plenty of musicality and conviction. Amira Casar's Jeanne d'Arc was suitably mystical and pigheaded - reminiscent of those feisty, fey females that one often saw running around Godard's Paris. Conductor Marin Alsop elicited a clean and clear performance from the London Symphony Orchestra. The London Symphony Chorus might have given it more oo-la-la. But it would have changed little. Death at the stake would have remained preferable to any more Honegger.

Amira Casar's Jeanne d'Arc was suitably mystical and pigheaded - reminiscent of those feisty, fey females that one often saw running around Godard's Paris

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Comments

I couldn't disagree more! As a singing student in Vienna just over 50 years ago, I took part in open-air performances of this work which affected me greatly. I've had the music in my mind ever since even though I've performed in or directed well over 100 operas over the years. The Vienna performances were enhanced by strong actors, dancers, costumes. etc. which helped. However, I would still never miss one of the rare performances of this fascinating work.

It's not the music that is trashy. It's the text. I couldn't believe Claudel had written such a vaudeville on Joan. Not just the ass and hog, but the "remember our childhood in Domremy" which was almost straight from Sound of Music.

No; the music is trashy too. It has its moments, and I can see that religious cabaret was half the point, but Igor seems to have hit the nail on the head in his initial judgment. Actually The Sound of Music is a lot better, and less pretentious...

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