Orleanskaja Deva, SF Opera
My sum opinion of this play is that, despite having very low expectations, I was impressed, because of the sheer beauty of the orchestral pieces. The ballet bits? Not my style. As my guest Tink said: “If I close my eyes, I like it a lot.”
Funny quote from a guy walking down the aisle: “You didn’t know Joan of Arc was a love story, did you?”
The whole story of her hearing voices, then leading the troops, and then being burned at the stake… well, inserted into that is a good old love story between her and her enemy, akin to Romeo and Juliet. Problem was the love interest was introduced post-intermission when we were all ready for a slow run to home plate. He was hot, though, and had a nice strong voice.
Now, in a manner unlike any other music review (probably), I will rank my favorite and least favorite vocalists, in descending order from good to bad.
Agnes- People spontaneously clapped for her at the end of her “I’ll give up my gold for your ill-fated campaign” aria. Wish she was Joan.
Lionel – With such a strong, clear, lyrical voice he was a breath of fresh air in the final acts.
Joan- Middling- good voice but not booming, as you would expect.
Charles VII second act- So much better than his earlier performance it was a new man on stage.
Charles VII first act – It was really too bad because he had an opportunity in the aria wth Agnes, but he just wasn’t inspired or focused in the entire first half.
Funny crowd response: I asked a bunch of people during intermission what they thought of it so far, and most of them didn’t know what language it was sung in. One woman, when I informed her that it was in Russian, replied “How odd, since I speak Russian.” I’m on the fence about whether an opera in Russian works, as in, with the mass of consonants, does it flow freely enough to really embrace the melodies? Having said that, one of my all time favorite vocal study pieces, sung by a very talented Hungarian/Romanian Julia Varady, Tchaikovsky’s Leider is very similar to Maid of Orleans in that it has the same composer and yet with a variety of samples to help comparison. To me, Russian tends to lend a Dr. Zhivago-like sadness and melancholy that is just so perfect for opera. I know I should talk about Eugene Onegin, but I haven’t seen it! I’ve read it in Russian. For all the time spent conjugating Russian verbs, I get some bragging rights, goddammit.
Part of my appreciation of opera besides the sumptuous sets, nicely dressed neighbors, squishy seats, amazing architecture, and powerful auditory overload, is the pre-Opera activity. Got a half hour of work done over a nice Chenin Blanc and some Bodega Bay oysters, all served promptly with attention to the show performance start, at Absinthe. It was no Good Frikin Chicken, but I was happy.
I can’t help but put this opera, which I had never seen before, in some kind of pop culture context. I kept conjuring up images of Jodie Foster as Joan, but that may be wishful thinking. Instead, Ingrid Bergman as Joan of Arc did perhaps the most memorable version in the 40s. Milla Jovovich as Joan of Arc (of all people!) did a failed attempt with The Messenger in ’99. OMD of course has a lovely video that is romantic and pining in all of that angst-ridden late 80s, early 90s gothic love. What is so captivating about the story? My opera-friend Tink said it wasn’t compelling enough, that religious fanatacism like Joan’s can’t translate today into something sympathetic. I think it’s just a mistaken combination of good talents that as a whole, don’t work. Also, I think, the late 1800s romantic music and the French opera style (ballet Act2, namely) doesn’t meld together for me. There are three dominant staging elements: The overarching Russian ethos that is so sad and inspired, the chorus on stage throughout, like a Greek play, and lastly the presence of silent ballet dancers… it just didn’t work as a whole for me.
OK, and did anyone mention the little Asian girl coming out of the fire? It was about as ridiculous as it sounds. I think maybe this odd staging bit is the one last remnant of the former Pamela‘s executive directorship and in a style reminiscent of Doctor Atomic.