OPERA NEWS - Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher
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Honegger: Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher

DVD Button Cotillard, Honojosa, Almajano, Extrémo; Gallais, Beuron, Vidal, Planas; Lieder Camera Choir, Madrigal Choir, Vivaldi-Petits Cantors de Catalunya Choir, Barcelona Symphony and Catalonia National Orchestra, Soustrot. Alpha 708, 80 mins., subtitles

Arc of History

Honegger’s oratorio about St. Joan bends toward greatness in this video recording with Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard.

Recordings DVD Jeanne d'Arc Cover 1215

Critics Choice Button 1015 HONEGGER'S ORATORIOS are effective in concert, but they’ve also frequently been staged. As recently as spring, Jeanne d’Arc was seen at the New York Philharmonic, in a production by Côme de Bellescize. Marion Cotillard was the star, and Cotillard also carries this film from a concert in Barcelona (also available on CD, Alpha 709). There’s not a bit of staging here, but Cotillard manages to enact the entire arc of the story without a costume, props, or even gestures. She carries the whole show with her face, and the video director is happy to keep our focus right there. Cotillard remains standing the entire time, and she never looks at anyone else onstage, even at the warm and intimate apparition of Brother Dominic (Xavier Gallais), who stands next to her, but this works beautifully. With so much of the piece conceived as visions or flashbacks, we can perceive the whole piece as happening in Jeanne’s mind.

The music is executed at a high level. Cotillard speaks her rhythmically notated recitations with great accuracy (at least until the finale, when the music carries her away), and in the two little lines where she must sing, she’s touching. The admirable tenor Yann Beuron, in several thankless roles, is the MVP. The various female vocal soloists have thicker, cloudier timbres than the music ideally should have, but they’re accurate. The assembled choruses are color-coded by dress (the girls in lavender hair scrunchies) and are impressive.

Some of Honegger’s music is awfully thin. In particular, the trial (almost literally a kangaroo court, as all the participants are animals) and the card game are flimsy. Likewise, Marc Soustrot’s conducting of these episodes is loose and offhand. But perhaps this is deliberate. From the “Heurtebise” march onward, Soustrot builds the music with security. The interlude in which the chorus hums in close intervals while a few glints of dissonant parallel brass chords color Jeanne’s description of Normandy is handled well, and the episode of Jeanne describing divine inspiration flowing into her is undeniably powerful. The video direction, save for some pointless slanted angles, does not detract from the music, and it also gives us close-ups of that electronic musical unicorn, the ondes Martenot, in action. But the instrument raises an unfortunate question: What masterpiece would Messiaen have made from the same text and performing forces?  —William R. Braun 

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