Honegger: Jeanne d’Arc au b˚cher

At first, there are so many things going on in Honegger’s Jeanne
Arc au b˚cher 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 FrËre 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 ExtrËmo. 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 FrËre 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

image_description=Honegger: Jeanne d’Arc au b˚cher
product_title=Honegger: Jeanne d’Arc au b˚cher
product_by=A review by Alex Wright
product_id=Alpha Productions 708 [DVD]