Arts opera review

Odyssey Opera and Boston Modern Orchestra Project presents The Trial at Rouen

A beautiful, poignant gem

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Stephen Powell as Pierre Cauchon and Heather Buck as Joan of Arc.
Kathy Wittman, Ball Square Films

Trial at Rouen

Presented by Odyssey Opera and Boston Modern Orchestra Project

Conducted by Gil Rose
Libretto and music by Norman Dello Joio

Dec 1, 2017

Joan of Arc has captured the imagination of many artists, from authors like Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw to painters like Bussiere and Rossetti. Even Madonna looks up to her: “I’m not Joan of Arc, not yet / I’m only human.” The saint-warrior-maiden also captured the imagination of Pulitzer-Prize-winning American composer, Norman Dello Joio, who produced multiple works that drew inspiration from Joan and her last days. For The Trial at Rouen, he wrote his own libretto, intent on capturing not only the emotional character of Joan’s struggles but also their historical context.

The first half of the performance was a symphony in three movements (The Triumph of Saint Joan Symphony). The first movement, “The Maid,” with its duet of flute and oboe, evokes Joan’s childhood in Domremy. The tune is light and carefree. It paints an image of valleys carpeted with mountain blooms, burbling brooks, clucking chickens, and all the staples of idyllic village life. In the second movement, “The Maid” is transformed into “The Warrior,” whose belligerent nature is embodied in rumbling drums and brazen horns. The third movement, “The Saint,” is reminiscent of Gregorian chanting accompanied by elegiac violins.  This performance of Dello Joio’s earlier work was a perfectly paired appetizer for the opera to follow.

True to their mission, the Odyssey Opera has uncovered another forgotten gem. The Trial at Rouen was written for the NBC Opera Theatre and although millions tuned into the televised broadcast, Dec. 1, 2017, is the first time the opera has been staged for a live audience.

The opera opens with a prelude, which was omitted from the televised version. All the soldier (Jeremy Ayres Fisher) sings at first is “la-la-la,” but, oh, what sheer beauty and melody is embodied in that human voice! In his ensuing encounter with Father Julien (Luke Scott), we learn of Joan’s situation. Pierre Cauchon, the English-leaning Bishop of Beauvais, (Stephen Powell) is waiting for Joan (Heather Buck) to recant her claim that she has been hearing the the voices of Heaven and to accept a woman’s garb as a symbol of her capitulation. The benevolent Father Julien saves Joan from assault by the jailer (Ryan Stoll) and tries to convince her to put on the dress, as a way to placate the Inquisitors. It is a relief that Joan has an ally in this stark setting. Their mutual sympathy and Joan’s willingness to temper her indignation result in a poignant, lyrical exchange between the two. Especially memorable is Joan’s serenade to the dress, in which she redoubles her conviction but also admits her fear of being burned.

The second act is the trial itself. The heart-wrenching anguish on the parts of both Joan and Pierre Cauchon is palpable. Both are equally entrenched in their beliefs. As a result, Powell’s Cauchon cannot be seen as a simple villain, because his treatment of Joan stems from his absolute certainty that his view of religion is the correct one and he desperately wants her to see this. One of the major thematic elements of Dello Joio’s opera is the conflict between two interpretations of religion: Joan’s more personal relationship to God, which foreshadows the Reformation, and Cauchon’s unyielding, medieval Catholicism.  The back-and-forth between the mass chorus of the People and the chorus of Jurors, who stand on the left balcony, contribute to the mounting tension.

Opera singers are not always selected on the basis of their acting skills, but when it happens that they are adept actors in addition to being accomplished vocalists, the calibre of the performance is trebled. Soprano Heather Buck is so convincing in her role as Joan that in the moment in the trial where she waivers and accepts the garment from Pierre Cauchon, allowing her fear of the flames to overcome her religious conviction, I too waver and wonder if I misremember how the story of Joan of Arc ends.

In the composer’s own words, The Trial at Rouen “recounts the ageless conflict between the individual of excessive imagination and those who hold to the status quo.” Whether one is a warrior-saint or an engineer, this is a conflict at the core of what we do. So, in this season of projects, term papers, and final exams, take heart in the courage and resilience of Joan of Arc, for you, just like she, “is a greater menace than [you know].”