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Joan of Arc oratorio musically rich, profound

  • Jul 5, 2011

 

[caption id="attachment_5715" align="aligncenter" width="480" caption="Eileen DeSandre, left, as Joan; Marin Alsop, conducting; soprano Christine Brandes, upper right, in the July 2 performance."][/caption] From the Eugene Register-Guard Tuesday, July 5 By Marilyn Farwell The buzz started in the lobby of the Hult Center. It was about the return of Marin Alsop, the anticipation of a rarely performed oratorio, and the result of those who had witnessed a rehearsal and enthusiastically told friends. The event was the presentation of the 20th century dramatic oratorio about Joan of Arc by the French composer Arthur Honegger. French is not the lingua franca of the Bach Festival, but oratorios are, and Honegger’s “Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher” proved to be a modern version of Bach’s Passions. It also proved to be the most dynamic modern work we have heard since Osvaldo Golijov’s “The Passion according to Saint Mark.” The oratorio tells, in reverse order, the story of Joan’s life as she waits at the stake, reviewing the path she took to this point. Both the text by the poet Paul Claudel and Honegger’s music are wildly imaginative.In the trial episode, for example, Claudel depicts Joan’s accusers as a pig, an ass and bleating sheep; Honegger matches this scene with raucous, parodic music. Honegger’s music moves from classical ostinatos to jazz, from heavenly ariosos to peasant dances, including, near the end, regressing into the cinematic background music for which he was famous. Alsop conducted with energy, precision and lyricism. She held together the myriad groups: the splendid Oregon Bach Festival orchestra and choruses, augmented by the renowned Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, a children’s chorus, five soloists and two actors who spoke the roles of Joan and Brother Dominic. Although there were flubbed entrances in the orchestra and chorus, little of it mattered as the music exploded angrily at times and glowed with mystical rapture at other times. Members of the chorus also ably took part in solos, spoken parts, and as in Bach’s Passions, at times, represented the people who condemn their savior with obloquies such as “heretic” and “witch.” The children’s choir added a light, innocent touch to scenes of Joan’s childhood. The soloists were splendid. Christine Brandes’ clarion voice rang brilliantly from the back of the stage, Tamara Wilson provided a heavenly sound as St. Margaret, and her alto counterpart, Anja Schlosser, handled the low tessitura with beauty and aplomb. The tenor, Timothy Fallon, was the most active soloist, representing with dramatic verve the pig, “Porcus,” in the trial scene. The bass, Andrew Gangestad as the Herald, was appropriately stentorian. Michael Meo, the boy soprano, was exceptional. The weakest link was Joan herself. The oratorio was “semi-staged” by James Robinson and depended on a platform underneath which the lighting changed colors, a technique effective in the burning scene. The actors were expected to move and emote, but while Kacy-Earl David as Brother Dominic had memorized most of his lines, Eileen DeSandre as Joan relied too heavily on the script she held. While acting beautifully at times, DeSandre seemed uncomfortable with a role in which the spoken text is written rhythmically into the score. In the end, the performance was musically rich and profound, but dramatically weak. Marilyn Farwell, a professor emerita of English at the University of Oregon, reviews vocal and choral music for The Register-Guard.