BSO lights a new fire under 'Joan of Arc'

Marin Alsop leads rare performance of oratorio about French saint

  • Conductor Marin Alsop leads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in "Joan of Arc at the Stake," a rare oratorio inspired by the French saint (pictured, as portrayed by Milla Jovovich in "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc").
Conductor Marin Alsop leads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra… (Jack English, Handout photo )
November 11, 2011|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

At the age of 16, a French villager named Jeanne d'Arc responded to what she said were the voices of saints, exhorting her to take up arms against English invaders. Dressed in male clothing, she led troops to victory in battle after battle before being captured when she was 19.

Jeanne heard voices again soon enough, but these were decidedly human ones, some mocking her and others praying for her as she slowly burned to death at the stake during a brutal execution carried out 580 years ago.

This week, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presents its first performance of a 1938 oratorio commemorating the woman whose faith, vision and bravery would eventually earn her sainthood. "Jeanne d'Arc au bucher" ("Joan of Arc at the Stake"), by Swiss-born Arthur Honegger, is a large-scale work infrequently encountered these days.

Marin Alsop, who will lead the BSO, three local choral ensembles and guest soloists in this presentation at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and New York's Carnegie Hall, has become one of the oratorio's most ardent champions.

"I never saw it performed live," Alsop said. "But about eight years ago, I heard snippets of it on the radio. Then I got a copy of a bootleg recording so I could hear the whole piece, and I really liked it. I started wondering: Who's going to let me do this?"

With the approach of a 600th anniversary — Jeanne's exact birth date is unknown, but scholars have settled on 1412 as her birth year — Alsop saw a good opportunity to interest organizations in the oratorio. That anniversary hook helped the conductor devise a recurring theme for the BSO's 2011-2012 season, a theme exploring women who achieved unique, influential things.

Jeanne d'Arc certainly was unique and influential.

"When you were a woman in the 15th century, you had two options," Alsop said. "You could be controlled by the men in your life, first your father and then who you married, or go into the church. A lot of women heard voices that led them into the church. Jeanne was unique because she heard voices that called her to a military career."

Jeanne's bravery and steadfast vision helped secure the French crown for Charles VII, who got more help from this unusual young woman than he did from most of his generals.

After her travesty of a trial, carried out by a French bishop allied with the English, the church eventually reconsidered Jeanne's case. She was fully exonerated — about two decades after her death.

Beatified in 1909 and made a saint in 1920, Jeanne became the patron saint of France. Her image was prominently used in World War I propaganda; some battles in that conflict were fought near those of Jeanne's.

"I'm fascinated by the way she could be adopted by almost any cause," Alsop said. "In France, the far-right Le Pen party [the National Front] has taken her for a mascot, but the liberal left often uses her as a symbol of freedom and independent thinking."

Over the centuries, Jeanne's story inspired books, plays (George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan" is the prime example) and operas (those by Verdi and Tchaikovsky deserve greater attention). Jeanne has been the subject of several movies as well. Ingrid Bergman starred as the peasant warrior in two of them, one based on Honegger's oratorio.

The most notable cinematic treatment was the stunning 1928 silent film "The Passion of Joan of Arc," which will be presented by the BSO in March with a live soundtrack. (A symposium on the leadership role of women will also be held then, continuing the theme of the BSO's season.)

Television, too, has had its Jeanne moments. A case in point is a short-lived 2004 series on Fox called "Wonderfalls" that starred Caroline Dhavernas, the Montreal-born actress who will perform the speaking role of Jeanne in the BSO's performances of the Honegger work.

"The writers told me the character of Jaye in that show was based on Joan of Arc," Dhavernas said. "She was an underachiever who started to change her life when inanimate objects talked to her and wanted her to do good things."

Whether many TV viewers caught the allusion on "Wonderfalls" is not known. After all, Jeanne and her extraordinary history may not register with the man and woman on the street these days.

That's a point wryly made by the BSO's public relations staff, which, as a promo for this week's concerts, sent a Jay Leno-style video crew out to film folks on Baltimore streets responding to the question: Who was Joan of Arc?

The result was a mix of blank stares, haphazard guesses (singer? actor?) and ballpark answers.

"Jeanne was for me a rather inanimate figure when I was young," Alsop said. "I would always picture her as a bronzed figure on a horse with a sword and banner. But she has become a real human being for me. I have a feeling for how complex she was and continues to be."

Having a chance to work on Honegger's oratorio intensified the conductor's interest in the subject. She led her first performance of the piece at the Oregon Bach Festival in July.

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