Arthur Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake) was composed in 1938 and has remained one of his most popular works. Beyond the timelessly compelling quality of the subject matter, which is actually handled in a totally non-melodramatic way, the piece, which Honegger called a dramatic oratorio, weaves astonishing variety into its roughly 75 minutes of music. With text by poet Paul Claudel, it offers not operatic development but a series of tableaux, some of them depicting Joan's recollections from her earlier life. The climactic burning, however, is intensely powerful. The work includes monodic sections, colorful orchestration including the electronic ondes Martenot, sober Bachian counterpoint, and comic folkish scenes, but it all hangs together. Honegger, unlike the other members of Les Six, affirmed the influence of Wagner and his Gesamtkunstwerk concept, and one of the secrets to this oratorio's success is its "music drama" aspect, the way it hangs between opera and drama. The lead roles of Joan and Brother Dominic are entirely spoken, not sung. This has helped the work commercially, for it's been natural to recruit well-known actresses (including, on film, Ingrid Bergman) for the role. What's required is a performer who's dramatically convincing enough to bump up against everything that's going on in the music, and this the work receives here in the performance by French actress Marion Cotillard. She puts across the uncanny sense of how Joan lives entirely in her own world, and her beautifully oracular statements will be understood directly even by listeners whose French is of the high-school variety. The mostly Spanish singers are uniformly strong, and the merged Barcelona Symphony and Catalonia National Orchestra under Marc Soustrot achieve transparency in a complex score, clearly rendered in Medici TV's live recording. A fine, fresh version of a 20th-century classic.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|Jeanne D'Arc au Bûcher|