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Recordings

Honegger: <em>Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher</em>
21 Sep 2015

Honegger: Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher

Marion Cotillard and Marc Soustrot bring the drama to the sweeping score of Arthur Honegger’s Jeanne dArc au bûcher, an adaptation of the Trial of Joan of Arc

Honegger: Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher

A review by Alex Wright

Alpha Productions 708 [DVD]

$26.99  Click to buy

At first, there are so many things going on in Honegger’s Jeanne dArc au bûcher score that watching it performed on a concert stage is disconcerting. The dense texture, the full chorus, the singing soloists, and the speaking actors—it’s a lot to take in at once. Arthur Honegger called Jeanne a “dramatic oratorio,” which really just means that there are actors with speaking roles, but as a listener it really hits home the feeling you get when watching this production. The score, singers, and actors are so compelling and affective that I felt that I could close my eyes and see it all play out in my head.

For this, the production is indebted to conductor Marc Soustrot. Under his direction, everything is in perfect balance. The nuanced playing in the orchestra is exquisite. Emotions live and die not only in the sweeping full drama of a forte moment, but also in the simple melody of a flute solo. Lest this be mistaken for some kind of late Romantic sweeping oratorio, Honegger’s signature modernist style is reflected by the inclusion of the ondes martenot. At the original 1938 premiere of this work, Jeanne would have been heralded in by the strange synthesized call of the ondes martenot, but in 1944, a prologue was added to the beginning of the oratorio, which chillingly begins “All France was without form and void,” a poignant post-war addition. It recalls the fractured identity of France in both post-war 1944 and 1431 in the wake of the Hundred Years War.

After the prologue follows eleven scenes that, though they are independent of each other, rise in intensity and action ultimately culminating in the burning of Jeanne. A cast of supporting players both sung and spoken anchors these scenes. Of these, Xavier Gallais as Frère Dominique and Yann Beuron as Porcus stand out. Gallais’ spoken Dominique is the only earthly character sympathetic to Jeanne’s cause. His sympathy is plainly heard and demonstrated in his superb dramatic acting sequences with Jeanne. Yann Beuron’s Porcus, the president of Jeanne’s trial, is well sung and his range is impressive. The Porcus scene is a part of an ongoing animal theme during Jeanne’s trial. Porcus, Latin for “swine,” is a particularly interesting figure in the narrative in light of Jeanne’s historical judge, who was Pierre Cauchon, his last name being a homonym for the French word for pig “cochon.” When Porcus sings, “Je suis le cochon,” he could just as easily be singing, “Je suis le Cauchon,” and the audience has no way of knowing. Other animals named in the trial include The Tiger, The Fox, The Serpent, the jury of sheep, and the clerk—an ass.

Jeanne’s mystical abilities are exemplified in the figures of La Vierge (The Virgin), Marguerite, and Catherine played by Maria Hinojosa, Marta Almajano, and Aude Extrèmo. They frequently call to Jeanne in well-balanced harmonies. Eventually forming a trio toward the end while Jeanne is on the pyre preparing to die, they attempt to calm her with words and consonant harmonies. They are the only characters that do not speak at any point. Their sung voices are associated exclusively with heaven and Jeanne’s visions.

Of course, no review of this recording would be complete without mentioning the incomparable Marion Cotillard. Her Jeanne serves as the heart of this production. In the beginning, she just seems unsure of the things people are saying about her. When Frère Dominique relays the charges against her (“Heretic! Witch! Apostate! Enemy of God! Enemy of the King! Enemy of the People!”), her voice shifts into anxiety and confusion. She clearly believes what she hears from heaven, and also believes in her cause. She refuses to recant her beliefs at her trial resulting in her conviction and sentencing to death. Her sentencing is Jeanne’s dramatic turning point in the work. She experiences regret and fear, at one point screaming, “I don’t want to die! I’m afraid,” but then being reassured by her trio of saints, refuses her last opportunity to recant, finally proclaiming “I’m coming!” as she burns. Cotillard sheds tears at both of these emotional peaks and it is so compelling that it is very hard not to be emotionally affected.

Cotillard has performed this role now three different times—once before this recording in Paris and then after in New York. Both of these other performances were more theatre (complete with animal costumes) than this strict concert presentation of the oratorio. The closest thing to a costume is Cotillard’s simple dress and little to no makeup. Though, as evidenced by the audience’s standing ovation, little to nothing is lost in terms of emotional affectation, due in large part to the Soustrot’s direction. Honegger’s work is magisterial and deserves more attention than he gets as one of the lesser-known composers of Les Six. This production serves his memory well and has breathed life into his work again.

Alex Wright

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