Richard and I heard this oratorio at the New York Philharmonic on 6/15. It was written in 1938, music by Arthur Honegger, libretto by Paul Claudel. It shows Joan of Arc at the stake, having flashbacks to her childhood, her trial, her visions. She struggles against her death but is finally released from pain and brought to heaven by the Virgin Mary and all the angels and saints.
I had the honor and thrill of performing this piece with the UW-Madison Choral Union (a 150-voice oratorio choir) and UW Symphony in 1995, the spring after I graduated from college. I had the speaking role of Brother Dominique, the monk who guides Joan through her journey. I was thrilled to hear that the NY Phil was doing it this spring, especially since Marion Cotillard was playing the speaking role of Joan.
It was more or less fully staged, the director was Jean-Pierre Loisil. He used the limited space in an imaginative way, and the lighting was wonderful. Cotillard was perfect as Joan - - she had a sure sense of what she was doing, she had a stabilizing effect on what could be a fragmented work. The high point of the piece and the high point of the performance was the one moment near the end when Joan sings: she sings what sounds like a folk song, ending with her saying she’s going to light a candle for the Blessed Virgin. It’s the quietest part of the score, it’s like a close-up in a movie. You could have heard a pin drop in the theater. She finished singing, the orchestra started its ascent, and she said, “I will be the candle myself.” Eviscerating!
Do you know that I have a thing for kitsch? Love it, can’t get enough of it. Well, this whole situation with Joan of Arc ascending to heaven with the BVM and all the angels and saints - - the Kitsch-o-Meter was spinning wildly about the dial. The Catholics might not have invented kitsch, but surely it is with them that it’s found its fullest expression. And to top it off, the director added a little <<coup de theatre>> at the very end: Joan has risen to heaven, the angels sing their sweet little tune about self-sacrifice, the flute plays its final ascending and falling figure, with a blue note at the end. Loisil had the children onstage unobtrusively pull little electric votive candles out of their pockets. The candles flickered. Then the chorus pulled out their votives. The fading final chord of the orchestra was accompanied by a fading of all the lights, and just before the lights went completely out, the orchestra pulled out their votives. It was a transcendent touch, kitsch of the highest order, and turned on the water works for me, which continued through the bows.