Saturday’s performance ranked among Odyssey Opera’s finest and most artistically satisfying undertakings.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
The list of operas not yet heard in Boston is a surprisingly long one, as Odyssey Opera continually reminds us. The company launched its fifth season on Saturday night at Jordan Hall with yet another local premiere in a concert performance, this time Tchaikovsky’s four-act grand opera The Maid of Orléans. For those unfamiliar with the whole piece (likely much of Saturday’s packed house), it’s a revealing work, showcasing both Tchaikovsky’s mighty abilities as a dramatist and some of the limits of the extravagant theatrical conventions with which he was working.
The Maid of Orléans adapts a number of sources, most importantly Schiller’s 1801 play on the life of Joan of Arc. In it, Joan’s a mature woman, confident in her calling, relying on no man to protect her. This puts her at odds with her father, who wants to see her married and safe. Instead, she has visions prophesying French victories over the English during the Hundred Years’ War and ultimately leads the army of the waffling, distracted King Charles VII to triumph. But then she falls in love with an English soldier and that throws her divine mission off its tracks. When she’s publically confronted by her father for being in league with the devil, she can’t answer (her burgeoning love for the Burgundian knight rendering her unchaste). Joan’s following disappears, she’s captured by the English, and, in the end, burned at the stake.
There’s plenty here for a good composer to sink his (or her) teeth into and Tchaikovsky was just entering his prime when he finished The Maid of Orléans in 1881. Parts of it – much of Act 1, swaths of the second half of Act 3, pretty much all of Act 4 – are inspired. The last act, in particular, with its impassioned first-scene love duet and Joan’s execution in the second, is superb, the former full of passionate intensity and the latter packed with expectation and foreboding.
Other sections dawdle. Part of this is the libretto’s fault: it’s populated, after all, with cut-out or unnecessary characters and half (or less)-thought-through ideas and behaviors. For instance, Charles VII’s Act 2 scenes with his mistress, Agnès Sorel, are unnecessary; she’s superfluous, exercising no direct influence on the narrative. Joan’s pivotal romance with the Burgundian knight Lionel, too, is so brief and partially-explored as to feel totally forced. And the opera’s crowds – never the most reliable bunch, it’s true – shift their allegiances with dizzying quickness and few questions asked.
Then there are a handful of musical quirks. As one might expect from grand opera, there’s lots of bombast on display. Each act ends loudly. The chorus hailing Joan’s triumphs in Act 3 features a ridiculous succession of climaxes that, in Jordan, came over as simply a din. And the opera’s obligatory ballet interlude, while spirited, lacks much of the charm consistently found in Tchaikovsky’s full-length ballets.
Even so, the opera’s shortcomings are largely overcome by Tchaikovsky’s innate sense of how to build and resolve musical arguments. Its best moments sound rather like his symphonies, just with singers added. That Tchaikovsky was a composer who could craft great tunes is beyond dispute. But his ability to use them to further dramatic ends was truly notable and that skill is fully on display throughout The Maid of Orléans.
The writing for Joan, in particular, is rich and complex. Tchaikovsky seemed to have a particular affinity for this character: here, she’s a fully-formed, brilliantly strong woman. And, in Kate Aldrich, Odyssey had a singer who fully embodied Joan’s intensity and strength of character. Aldrich has a big, powerful voice. It easily filled Jordan Hall and held its own with the large orchestra and choral contingent sitting behind her. But it’s a flexible instrument, too, capable of rich nuance and dark tonal shadings.
Aldrich drew on all these qualities over the opera’s four acts, but to especially fine effect in the outer ones. Her big aria that closed Act 1 was both touching and rousing, while the passionate duet between Joan and Lionel that forms the first half of Act 4 held nothing back. And her character’s procession to the stake at the opera’s end was deeply affecting.
As Joan’s father, Thibaut, Kevin Thompson sang with a robust, warm tone. The character’s a one-note villain – a father miffed at his daughter’s perceived rebellion and willing to make her pay with her life because of it – but Thompson imbued his Act 3 duet with Yeghishe Manucharyan’s Raymond with pathos, and that helped flesh out the role somewhat.
On his own, Manucharyan was excellent in his few scenes as Joan’s betrothed, rich-toned and earnest. Aleksey Bogdanov’s Lionel was similarly big-voiced, but his singing was a mite stiff and, in their first scenes at least, there wasn’t much obvious chemistry between him and Aldrich.
Keven Ray brought a somewhat reedy tone to his portrayal Charles VII, and it suited the cowardly sovereign well. Mikhail Svetlov’s Archbishop was booming: pious and stentorian, it’s almost like he’s got a replica of the sanctuary of the Rheims cathedral built into his mouth. Erica Petrocelli gave a solid account of the forgettable Agnès, while David Kravitz and David Salsbery Fry made thoughtful contributions to the proceedings.
Throughout the evening, the big Odyssey Opera Chorus was in terrific voice. They took on a number of characters – peasants, soldiers, and crowds – singing them all with precision and energy. Particularly bright and fine was the semi-choir of angels placed in the balcony.
As usual, the Odyssey Opera Orchestra acquitted itself grandly. There were a few raw spots and some moments of holding back the volume to balance voices and instruments (as at the end of Act 1) came at the cost of sonic momentum.
But Tchaikovsky knew how to make an orchestra sound great and this ensemble reveled in his scoring. The playing of the woodwind principals – Sarah Brady (flute), Jennifer Slowik (oboe), and Jan Halloran (clarinet) – was exceptional. Linda Osborn’s account of the organ part in Act 3 was likewise spot-on. Brass and percussion shined brightly in the many martial episodes. The whole group made the most of the few moments they had to themselves – the prologues to each act, the Act 2 ballet – and, especially for a non-standing orchestra, accompanied the singers deftly.
Odyssey’s artistic director Gil Rose presided over it all with a sure hand. After four years, he seems to have figured out most of the quirks of doing grand opera concert performances in Jordan Hall: on Saturday, pretty much everything came across clearly and the pacing, while sometimes brisk, never felt rushed. In all, Saturday’s performance ranked – with 2014’s Die tote Stadt and last year’s Dimitrij – among Odyssey’s finest and most artistically satisfying undertakings.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.