Alan Gilbert leads a superb account of Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher

GermanyGermany Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher: Soloists, Vokalhelden Children’s Choir (directors: Johannes David Wolff, Judith Kamphues), MDR Radio Chorus (director: Philipp Ahmann), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Alan Gilbert (conductor). Philharmonie Berlin, 8.6.2024. (MB)

Jeanne d’Arc (spoken, Marion Cotillard) and Brother Dominique (spoken, Eric Génovèse) © Bettina Stöss

Jeanne d’Arc (spoken) – Marion Cotillard
Brother Dominique (spoken) – Eric Génovèse
Narrator (spoken) – Christian Ganon
La Vierge – Elsa Benoit
St Marguerite – Adèle Charvet
St Catherine – Anna Kissjudit
Porcus, Voice / First Herald / Priest – Valentyn Dytiuk
Voice / Second Herald / Peasant – Alex Rosen

Stage direction – Côme de Bellescize
Production – Ony Sarfati
Costumes, Stage equipment – Colombe Lauriot Prévost
Lighting – Thomas Costerg

Arthur Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher is an unusual work, seldom encountered in performance, though its duration at about seventy-five minutes makes it good for both concert and CD. It is generally classed as an oratorio, but the designation mystère lyrique arguably makes better sense, bringing it closer to a mystery play and reminding us that the work, with spoken dialogue and three central spoken roles, is at least as much Paul Claudel’s as Honegger’s. It has been fully staged, even filmed; here, it was given in what we might call a ‘concert staging’ from a team led by Côme de Bellescize, with vivid use of costumes and lighting, as well as excellent, integrated acting in spoken and, where appropriate, sung roles alike.

The work presents Joan of Arc’s final moments before burning at the stake, punctuated by flashbacks to her childhood visions and to her show-trial, reaching an ecstatic apotheosis in departing this world that musically, as well as dramatically, seems to partake more of Claudel’s French Catholicism than Honegger’s Swiss Protestantism. In the title role, first taken (and danced) by Ida Rubinstein, Marion Cotillard gave a memorable, charismatic performance in startling red, touched by a strange fanaticism that resisted temptation to sentimentalise, whilst alert to situational and personal injustice. (Perhaps that is residual Englishness on my part, and I should feel differently if I were French, though I suspect a strong distaste for many manifestations of popular piety also affects my response to this peculiar figure.) Eric Génovèse gave us a sympathetic and enabling, yet ultimately ambiguous Brother Dominique. Christian Ganon was very much the showman, even conjurer, as Narrator, in a neat conception bringing to life the tale from a book he read to the splendid, colourfully arrayed children’s choir, Vokalhelden, called upon to act as well as sing.

Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher at Philharmonie Berlin © Bettina Stöss

Their adult counterparts, the MDR Chorus, brought heft and agility to their part, underpinning, elucidating, and battling in so much of the action, Honegger’s debt to Bach as apparent as his undoubted originality. Vocal soloists, often assuming multiple roles, all impressed, Elsa Benoit, Adèle Charvet, and Anna Kissjudit positioned in appropriately heavenly positions by the organ as the Virgin and Saints Marguerite and Catherine, vocal delivery enhancing that visionary quality. Valentyn Dytiuk’s roster of tenor roles, not least the pig, Porcus (Claudel’s play on words between cochon and Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais), was delivered with a fine sense of theatre, as well sung as they were characterful; so too were those of rich-toned bass Alex Rosen.

Alan Gilbert’s leadership of these forces and spirited, idiomatic playing from the Berlin Philharmonic proved adept in imparting a proper sense of unity to what might on paper – and doubtless in a lesser performance – pose a danger of the unduly eclectic. Here, the powerful prologue, added de profundis by Claudel and Honegger in 1944, cast its dark shadow over the proceedings to come, as did the later rigour of Honegger’s counterpoint, without detracting from the Prokofiev-like sardonicism of the scene with Porcus and its seemingly fond return to the relatively carefree 1920s. One certainly felt the work’s Janus-faced quality, placed somewhere in between, as well as its resonances of an historic French nationalism, folksong and all. Ominous orchestral tolling and reimaginations of ‘early music’ led us through hallucinatory recreations of the girl’s visions, to the terrible fiery flame that would be her wedding dress, and beyond to the closing ensemble hymn and haunting reprise of an earlier, wandering flute solo. It was full of incident, for instance in the ondes Martenot’s suggestion of howling dogs, but also of quasi-cinematographic direction and reflection.

Mark Berry

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