"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.

Earlier this month, she conducted it again, this time with the London Symphony Orchestra. The response to that presentation was not universally welcoming. A writer for a British arts website scoffed at the idea of reviving Honegger's "slime," with its "untidy flea market of meretricious musical ideas." Everyone's a critic.

But to Alsop, "Jeanne d'Arc au bucher," is anything but meretricious. And she's more than willing to dive into its "flea market" of musical styles, from Bachlike to jazz.

"I like these hard-to-put-in-a-box pieces," Alsop said. "It makes it more interesting. I like the hybrid nature of Honegger's music. He can be extraordinarily erudite and esoteric, and then turn around and write a great piece of jazz. Maybe that's a reason why he's not better known today."

The conductor's affinity for eclectic works was memorably demonstrated when she led the BSO in Leonard Bernstein's theatrical "Mass." Alsop sees similarities between that an Honegger's oratorio.

"It could be the French/Swiss 'Mass,' if you know what I mean," she said. "It's got religious overtones. It uses similar forces and has such intriguing instrumentation. With Bernstein's 'Mass,' you have electric guitar. With Honegger, you get three saxophones and the ondes martenot."

One of the coolest sound-producing devices invented in the 20th century, the ondes martenot is an early electronic instrument that produces an eerie glissando, similar to that made by a theremin. It spices several scenes in "Jeanne d'Arc au bucher."

The speaking roles in the piece can be just as vivid; they require real acting, not mere narration. They are as integrally woven into the score as the lines sung by soloists and choral forces. The text, by Paul Claudel, traces major points of the heroine's life in flashback, opening with her already in chains.

"Just like Bernstein's 'Mass,' of course, this work is bigger than its subject matter," Alsop said.

In France, this music celebrating a great warrior who had opposed an invading army understandably struck a chord during the Occupation.

That chord rang out even more pointedly in 1944, when Honegger and Claudel added a prologue to the score, with a text describing a darkness over France, a "chaos of consciences and souls." (Although Honegger supported the Resistance, his seemingly cozy relationship with the Germans led to him being briefly ostracized after the war.)

The trial scene in the oratorio is treated as brutal satire. Claudel seized on the name of Bishop Cauchon, who presided over the prosecution of Jeanne — Cauchon sounds the same as "cochon," French for "pig." So, here, Jeanne is assailed in a rigged court by various beasts; a donkey is the court clerk.

In another satirical scene, a card game played by crazed kings and nobles helps to seal the fate of poor Jeanne.

Dhavernas, who appeared last year in the movie "The Switch" and the HBO World War II miniseries "The Pacific," said she wants "to breathe life into her as much as I can."

The actress has never worked on an oratorio before. Belgian-born actor Ronald Guttman, whose credits include "The Hunt for Red October," brings previous experience as narrator for another Honegger oratorio, "Le roi David," to the BSO production; he will portray Jeanne's confessor, Brother Dominic.

"To have something this new and challenging is scary," Dhavernsas said. "As an actor, you create your own rhythm. This is like having your soundtrack with you already, instead of added afterward. I read music a little bit, but I am listening to a recording of the piece all the time, trying to remember where I come in."

The BSO performances will be sung in the original French, with projected surtitles.

"I toyed with the idea of doing the narration in English, but I think it would be odd. The French adds to the mystery of the piece," Alsop said. "French is a language I feel very close to. It was the second language I learned at 8 or 10. I also studied it at Yale. I read Camus and all those guys in French."

The highly theatrical nature of the oratorio — Honegger originally intended it to be performed at the Paris Opera — will be honored as much as possible in the BSO presentation, staged by seasoned opera director James Robinson.

"I think it will be pretty minimalist because there are going to be so many bodies onstage," Alsop said. "Jim will do a lot with lighting. But I don't think we'll light anything on fire."


If you go

"Jeanne d'Arc au boucher" will be performed at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $28 to $61. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.

  • Text NIGHTLIFE to 70701 to sign up for Baltimore Sun nightlife and music text alerts