BSO lights a new fire under 'Joan of Arc'

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Conductor Marin Alsop leads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in "Joan of Arc at the Stake," a rare oratorio inspired by the French saint (pictured, as portrayed by Milla Jovovich in "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc").

At the age of 16, a French villager named Jeanne d'Arc responded to what she said were the voices of saints, exhorting her to take up arms against English invaders. Dressed in male clothing, she led troops to victory in battle after battle before being captured when she was 19.

Jeanne heard voices again soon enough, but these were decidedly human ones, some mocking her and others praying for her as she slowly burned to death at the stake during a brutal execution carried out 580 years ago.

This week, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presents its first performance of a 1938 oratorio commemorating the woman whose faith, vision and bravery would eventually earn her sainthood. "Jeanne d'Arc au bucher" ("Joan of Arc at the Stake"), by Swiss-born Arthur Honegger, is a large-scale work infrequently encountered these days.

Marin Alsop, who will lead the BSO, three local choral ensembles and guest soloists in this presentation at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and New York's Carnegie Hall, has become one of the oratorio's most ardent champions.

"I never saw it performed live," Alsop said. "But about eight years ago, I heard snippets of it on the radio. Then I got a copy of a bootleg recording so I could hear the whole piece, and I really liked it. I started wondering: Who's going to let me do this?"

With the approach of a 600th anniversary — Jeanne's exact birth date is unknown, but scholars have settled on 1412 as her birth year — Alsop saw a good opportunity to interest organizations in the oratorio. That anniversary hook helped the conductor devise a recurring theme for the BSO's 2011-2012 season, a theme exploring women who achieved unique, influential things.

Jeanne d'Arc certainly was unique and influential.

"When you were a woman in the 15th century, you had two options," Alsop said. "You could be controlled by the men in your life, first your father and then who you married, or go into the church. A lot of women heard voices that led them into the church. Jeanne was unique because she heard voices that called her to a military career."

Jeanne's bravery and steadfast vision helped secure the French crown for Charles VII, who got more help from this unusual young woman than he did from most of his generals.

After her travesty of a trial, carried out by a French bishop allied with the English, the church eventually reconsidered Jeanne's case. She was fully exonerated — about two decades after her death.

Beatified in 1909 and made a saint in 1920, Jeanne became the patron saint of France. Her image was prominently used in World War I propaganda; some battles in that conflict were fought near those of Jeanne's.

"I'm fascinated by the way she could be adopted by almost any cause," Alsop said. "In France, the far-right Le Pen party [the National Front] has taken her for a mascot, but the liberal left often uses her as a symbol of freedom and independent thinking."

Over the centuries, Jeanne's story inspired books, plays (George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan" is the prime example) and operas (those by Verdi and Tchaikovsky deserve greater attention). Jeanne has been the subject of several movies as well. Ingrid Bergman starred as the peasant warrior in two of them, one based on Honegger's oratorio.

The most notable cinematic treatment was the stunning 1928 silent film "The Passion of Joan of Arc," which will be presented by the BSO in March with a live soundtrack. (A symposium on the leadership role of women will also be held then, continuing the theme of the BSO's season.)

Television, too, has had its Jeanne moments. A case in point is a short-lived 2004 series on Fox called "Wonderfalls" that starred Caroline Dhavernas, the Montreal-born actress who will perform the speaking role of Jeanne in the BSO's performances of the Honegger work.

"The writers told me the character of Jaye in that show was based on Joan of Arc," Dhavernas said. "She was an underachiever who started to change her life when inanimate objects talked to her and wanted her to do good things."

Whether many TV viewers caught the allusion on "Wonderfalls" is not known. After all, Jeanne and her extraordinary history may not register with the man and woman on the street these days.

That's a point wryly made by the BSO's public relations staff, which, as a promo for this week's concerts, sent a Jay Leno-style video crew out to film folks on Baltimore streets responding to the question: Who was Joan of Arc?

The result was a mix of blank stares, haphazard guesses (singer? actor?) and ballpark answers.

"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