Magnificent Ekaterina Semenchuk opens new Mariinsky Opera season in an astounding The Maid of Orleans

Russian FederationRussian Federation Tchaikovsky, The Maid of Orleans: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre / Valery Gergiev (conductor). Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, 8.9.2021. (GT)

Ekaterina Semenchuk (Joan) and Sergey Skorokhodov (King Charles VII)
(c) Mikhail Vilchuk

Stage director – Alexey Stepanyuk
Costumes and Set director – Vyacheslav Okunev
Lighting director – Irina Vtornikova
Choreography – Ilya Ustyantsev
Chorusmasters – Konstantin Rylov and Nikita Gribanov

Joan – Ekaterina Semenchuk
Agnes Sorel – Maria Bayankina
King Charles VII – Sergey Skorokhodov
Archbishop – Mikhail Petrenko
Dunois – Vladislav Kupriyanov
Lionel – Alexey Markov
Thibaut d’Arc – Yevgeny Nikitin

To open the 239th season at the Mariinsky Theatre with Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans is interesting because it immediately brings to our attention one of the composer’s overlooked stageworks and one whose success or failure largely depends on the performance of the title role – Joan of Arc. In the past the Mariinsky has enjoyed success, notably with Sofia Preobrazhenskaya who gave a magnificent interpretation in the 1945 Kirov Opera production. This new production was premiered on 28 May 2021 during the White Nights Festival, however, because of the pandemic, it was decided to have it open the new season as it was well received by press and public alike. The conception of the production is explained by the stage director Alexey Stepanyuk: ‘We are not staging a historic opera “about knights”, but rather a romantic opera – a metaphysical one, even. Fire is the entire production’s leitmotif, a symbol of all consuming flame in which our whole world perishes with its madness of wars and hatred. And, with her saintly smile, the Maid of Orleans towers above these flames.’

Tchaikovsky was attracted to writing this opera after reading Schiller’s play (Die Jungfrau von Orleans), and rather than continue the theme of lyrical intimacy of his Eugene Onegin, he decided to conceive a grand opera in the manner of Verdi’s opera, Giovanna d’Arco, but with a theme of passionate ideas and more humanity. In preparation, he also looked at August Mermete’s opera Jeanne d’Arc based on Jean-Paul Barbier’s biography and read the authoritative account by Jules Michelet. He wrote the opera for a soprano, however the Mariinsky Theatre requested he rewrite it for the mezzo voice of Maria Kamenskaya, a task Tchaikovsky took care of by altering some of the modulations. The Czech conductor/composer Eduard Nápravník conducted the successful premiere in February 1881. Despite which the opera was not popular with the press, and it has rarely enjoyed the triumphs of Tchaikovsky’s other operas. Some years later the composer resolved to revise the fictitious love between Lionel and Joan and restore the original Schiller plot, where Joan dies on the battlefield, however, he did not live long enough to fulfil his intention.

Valery Gergiev’s rich gallery of talent at the company meant that he could use as many as four different singers for the crucial role of Joan. Ekaterina Gubanova gave the first performance in June to much acclaim; however, this opening performance was keenly anticipated for the choice of Ekaterina Semenchuk in the title role.

The opening introduction has two main themes; the first depicts Joan, with lively clarinet, horn and a wonderful flute solo heard against lithe string playing, with a buildup of excitement by the brass and thrilling chords from the trombones, horns, and trumpets. The secondary idea represents Joan’s heavenly devotion enshrined on a harp with an extended solo flute passage by Sophia Viland which led to the opening of a misty forest scene revealing a slumbering Joan who is awakened by maidens emerging from the river, and the girls’ chorus sings ‘Let us all gather here, whilst daylight is still with us…’. They are disturbed by the arrival of Joan’s father Thibault d’Arc and her suitor Raymond who attempt to arrange her wedding.

The flames rising in the forest depths quickly transform the mood with the villagers warning of the invading English troops (‘Fire! Help us! The enemy is coming!’). Joan takes up the cross as if warning the English, ‘Brothers and friends, dry your tears! The Savior is alive…’. A wounded soldier arrives and tells of Lord Salisbury’s death, while in a finely devised moment, the cross becomes an axe in Joan’s hands, as she pledges to vanquish the invaders. The choir sings ‘There are still miracles…’ and they are superb with impassioned great drama from the villagers. In the following hymn and aria, Joan sings ‘Yes, the time has come! I must obey heaven’s wishes…’ and this is one of the most memorable moments in the opera and the melody lasts long in one’s memory, Semenchuk here embodying Joan in voice and presence. In the finale, the angels’ choir sing ‘Joan! Joan! You must don a warrior’s clothing…’ and it was emotionally moving and beautifully sung.

At Chinon castle in the second act, the entr’acte opened brightly with fine oboe playing on an upbeat theme with the minstrels’ chorus singing and playing their lutes. A beautiful clarinet solo led to the outstanding tenor of Sergey Skorokhodov’s King Charles, moaning that the minstrels are too gloomy and calling on his artistes to present three dances and attractively attired in grey, claret, and rosy colours, these are performed by minstrels, pages, gypsies, clowns, jugglers and dwarves. (It is strange that this orchestral music is not heard in the concert hall). The king has a beautiful lyrical tenor, and a solo flute heralds a fine aria by Maria Bayankina (Agnes Sorel) and leading to a vivid duet between her and the king. Clarion calls harken the arrival of the archbishop announcing victory over the English, with the victorious Joan arriving in a blissful march of her troops, amid great choral singing matched by the orchestra and by Mikhail Petrenko’s Archbishop (he is more often heard in Wagnerian roles). He sings, ‘A prophet sent by the Lord…’ which leads to a terrific close with Joan raising the banner ‘And I must carry a white banner, with a purple stripe…’.

Act III is set on the battlefield – where in a finely choreographed duel, Lionel, the King of Burgundy, is defeated by Joan, but in a splendid transitory orchestral and singing passage, the voice of Lionel swings from fury to love, and she in turn falls in love with the knight (‘Heaven showed me glory and a crown, I am not worthy of this crown!’). In the second scene at Rheims Cathedral (splendidly represented on stage) – in an impressive orchestral march and chorus – there is on view sumptuous pageantry with victorious soldiers, priests and royalty enhanced by magnificent choral singing, ‘Glory to the Almighty’ accompanied by an organ played by Edward Kiprsky – itself very unusual in Russian music. The mood is broken by the duet between Raymond and Thibaut in which Joan’s father denounces her in a powerful scene turning everyone against her: ‘This is the voice of heaven; she must be guilty!’. At the end of this act, there are rumbles of thunder as the archbishop joins the onslaught on Joan – as she relents on war, declaring her love for Lionel.

Mariinsky Theatre’s The Maid of Orleans (c) Natasha Razina

Act IV opens with a hazy forest scene, where Joan agonises ‘I dare to give a mortal what I had promised to God?’ and the duet with Lionel is broken by a chorus of angels reminding her of her disobedience and she must face death. Suddenly English troops storm in and take her away in chains. A funeral pyre awaits in the final scene at Rouen, where the chorus sings, ‘Look, they are bringing her, the witch is coming!’ and Joan is consumed by flames as a great cross descends and the angels’ chorus sings, ‘Come to the heaven of god! Joan’. This scene is accompanied by realistic orchestral sounds conjuring up imagery of fire and conflagration. Interestingly, there are parallels here with the closing scenes of Khovanschina and Götterdämmerung.

The overwhelming star of this performance was Semenchuk’s magnificent Joan – this role truly belongs to this great Russian singer for she portrayed all the passion and emotion of the character with her sumptuously rich voice – without any weakness or fragility – her range is truly magnificent and in the best tradition of Russian singing. (One imagines that somewhere in the heavens, that great former star of the Kirov Opera – Sophia Preobrazhenskaya may be looking down with an angelic smile on this evening of magnificent singing and acting.) The other roles were most successful, especially the Lionel of Alexey Markov; Petrenko’s Archbishop had a remarkable presence and deep vocal range; Bayankina’s Agnes was memorable; as was the Thibaut d’Arc of Yevgeny Nikitin, another fine Wagnerian.

Throughout the orchestra and chorus of the Mariinsky were world-class and in supreme form under Gergiev’s masterly baton. His decision to restore a new production of this great opera to the Mariinsky Theatre will open up this stage work to a wider audience, after the last vestiges of the global pandemic are gone. With the depths of singing and acting talent in St Petersburg, there are enough singers who can introduce Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans to new audiences in seasons to come – but this evening belonged to Semenchuk.

Gregor Tassie

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