Monday, March 28, 2005

Celebrating the golden jubilee year of her long and storied career in 2005, legendary soprano Mirella Freni has returned to the District to star in the Washington National Opera’s production of “The Maid of Orleans,” Tchaikovsky’s infrequently heard opera, which opened at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House this Saturday past.

Perhaps the composer’s most ambitious effort in grand opera, this stirring work is dramatically uneven but also contains some of Tchaikovsky’s most ravishing music.

Nearly everyone, of course, is familiar with some flavor of the story of Joan of Arc, the political and religious epic that inspired Tchaikovsky’s work. Under attack from the British, the spineless French monarch Charles VII is about to turn tail and run. But he’s suddenly and miraculously saved by a peasant teenage girl named Joan — who, inflamed with religious fervor, astonishingly assumes leadership of the French forces and leads them to numerous victories in 1429. Falling into the hands of the British, probably with the help of French intrigues, she was tried in a kangaroo court and burned at the stake as a heretic in 1431.

The sweep of Tchaikovsky’s musical drama is magnificent and it’s a shame that it isn’t heard more often. By far the best music occurs in the first two of this opera’s four acts, as Joan, inspired by an angelic chorus, determines to follow the call of God and the Blessed Virgin to leave her beloved home and save France, leading her nation in great victories under the banner of the Lord.

Although “Maid” is perhaps the most Western of Tchaikovsky’s 10 operas, it is also thoroughly Russian in that the chorus plays a significant musical and dramatic role. The Washington National Opera chorus turned in an excellent performance on opening night. Well-rehearsed, comfortable with the difficult Russian words, and right on target with the work’s varying tempos, this is some of the best mass-singing the company has staged in quite some time and adds a frisson to the opera’s climactic scenes.

The soloists, too, are generally at their best. Miss Freni was marvelous in the huge role of Joan. Her voice seemed at times a bit soft, particularly in the large ensemble numbers. But she sang this highly dramatic part with great conviction and pinpoint accuracy, and her dramatic characterization of Joan energized every scene in which she appeared.

As Lionel, her would-be lover, baritone Sergei Leiferkus does not appear until Act III, but gave a compelling, definitive performance, perhaps his best effort in Washington to date. Bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin also turned in a strong effort as Joan’s conflicted and villainous father, Thibaut. Baritone Vladimir Moroz was excellent in the smaller role of Dunois, Joan’s principal defender. And, in the small role of Agnes Sorel, soprano Maira Kerey made a brilliant company debut with a sparkling, crystal voice that should merit her return here in a larger role. As Charles VII, however, tenor Viktor Lutsiuk seemed uncertain of his part and badly botched an unaccompanied interlude and duet in the work’s second act.

Although the brass section sounded at times like the Army band — not enough strings to balance it — the Washington National Opera Orchestra seemed inspired under the steady baton of Stefano Ranzani. Conducting this season has been uneven, but Maestro Ranzani kept his large forces, including chorus and vocalists, under tight control with spectacular results.

Unfortunately, this production’s bare bones set reminded one of the Constitution Hall days where scrims and projections sufficed for the expected visual pageantry. Imported from Turin’s Teatro Regio, this is truly a bargain-basement setting, no matter how director Lamberto Puggelli might try to explain it away. Worse, by the third act, the never ending stream of dropping, near-transparent scrims had the audience tittering. The costuming was unisex and uninspired. And the whole shebang had that dingy, fashionably post-industrial look that current European designers and directors like to think calls the Middle Ages to mind — when in fact, they have only re-created Pittsburgh in the 1950s.

WHO: Washington National Opera

WHAT: Tchaikovsky’s “The Maid of Orleans”

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: Evening performances are at 7:30 Thursday and April 5; and at 7 o’clock April 8 and April 11; a matinee is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday.

TICKETS: $45 to $290


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