The Opera of Sheer Strength, Drama, and Authenticity!
David A. Hollingsworth | Washington, DC USA | 11/11/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Piotr Illyich Tchaikovsky's "The Maid of Orleans" (or Orleanskaya deva) of 1879 was his fifth completed opera. Cast in 4 acts (six scenes), the stage work is loosely based on F. von Schiller's "Jeanne d'Arc translated by Zhukovsky. Tchaikovsky himself provided the libretto for the work. The premiere in 1881 at the Maryinsky Theatre conducted by Eduard Napravnik scored only a modest success. The assassination of Tsar Alexander II two weeks later did much to shelve the opera, as the season was cancelled. In looking at the history of performances compiled by Ultraphone LPs, which reissued the original Melodiya recording, this opera was performed no more than nine occassions between 1881 and 1958. The perceptions of the opera did most of the damage, I believe. In Richard Taruskin's revealing essay of Tchaikovsky in Grove, Cesar Cui noted that Tchaikovsky identified with the Joan d'Arc too profoundly, as if giving her a sense of divinity. There's a certain truth to that, though not very surprising. Like Massenet, Tchaikovsky's gift rested in his understanding of the characters, sometimes to the point of becoming one of them. In reviewing his Manfred Symphony under Pletnev, I've noted the composer's relation to the anger, tormentation, soul searching, and redemption and inner peace Manfred underwent. That was Tchaikovsky's life in a nutshell. Tchaikovsky did not become Joan d' Arc, but a recent breakdown of his marriage played a role in his treatment of the opera. Did Tchaikovsky damaged Joan d' Arc's mission in the eyes of heaven? No, Tchaikovsky was too good of a musical psychologist for that. He, however, added human dimensions to Joan d'Arc beyond the divinity and gave her inner strength and even a sense of vulnerabilty that are compelling. The work is to an extant a grand opera for the rhetoric leans towards Meyerbeer while the sense of urgency in some pages suggests his familiarity with Verdi. But out of Verdi and Meyerbeer, Rubinstein was the bigger influence. For example, in the middle of Act I (the chorus of the Maidens), the opera inherits the nobleness and the old-mannered dignity to be found in Rubinstein's "The Demon." But Tchaikovsky was his own man, with his orchestration and choral writing idiomatic, glorious and even poetic. The end of Act I for example, with Jeanne d' Arc's aria accompaning by the Chorus of the Maidens, shows Tchaikovsky as among his best.Tchaikovsky's treatment of the rest of the cast is also very compelling and singers of the Kirov Opera and Ballet met the challenges euphoniously. V. Kilchevsky as Charles VII was strong and commanding throughout. But Sofya Preobrazhenskaya, a brilliant yet overlooked soprano, made a name of herself particularly by performing Jeanne d'Arc throughout her career. She gave the character a sort of femininity that is strong, willful, and convicted, as if guided by God himself. But Preobrazhenskaya avoided the one-dimensionalism of the character that could have been easily undertaken by those not so familiar with the role as she was (except Irina Arkhipova in a later Melodiya recording). She made Jeanne d' Arc a vulnerable, pure human being, torn between her divine mission and her love for Lionel (passionately sung by L. Solomyak). The love duet between them in Act IV is especially spellbinding before Jeanne's execution. Boris Khaikin was an excellent concert and theatrical conductor of the former Soviet Russia. He led the Chorus and Orchestra of the Kirov Opera and Ballet Theatre with fiery temperament and drive. Yet there are places where he can have this magical sense of subtlety and vividness. It's unfortunate that he, like so many conductors around his generation (such as Samosud, Melik-Pashayev, and Nebolsin), remained so little known. The original 1946 recording is well captured on these dics and the fillers (esp. of Mussorgsky's Khovanschina) are further incentives to purchase this CD album. The presentation is relatively disappointing, though, with no libretto, inadequate history behind the work, and no slip case. But the performance itself is truly in a demonstration class."
Impressively moving, and melodic
David A. Hollingsworth | 10/09/1999
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I have not heard this recording, but do own one put out by Columbia Melodiya many years ago. The opera was complete. It starred the riviting Irina Arkhipova as Joan ( a voice so electrifying, at once very powerful full and tender ). For those familiar with Tchaikovshy's other operas, in particular Eugene Onegin or the Queen of Spades, you are in for a most wonderful surprise. This opera is every bit as melodic ( more so actually ) and really very gripping, especially in the final scene where Joan is burned at the stake. The first act is faultless, and contains the only well known number from the work, Joan's Farewell. Joan's vision that ends the act is spellbinding. This opera offers so much more in the way of pageantry and wonderful choruses that his more well known operas simply don't offer. Why this opera is so forgotten is really a mistery, as it was the first of Tchaikovshy's operas to travel outside Russia, and was extremely popular. Though the part of Joan was originally written for a soprano, at the premier it was tranposed for a mezzo, and has been sung that way most all the time. The score contains both versions. The weakest roles in the opera are for Agnes, and for the Dauphin. The baritone love interest, lionel, is so written it would be the envy of any tenor. For those who love Tchaikovsky's drama and melodies contained in his ballet music, this opera will especially excite you, as it reflects that auro rather than the more disjointed melodic lines of some of his other operatic writing, and that of many of his Russian contemporaries. Though I cannot vouch for this recording, I can say for sure, the opera itself is well worth the money."