Philharmonic closes season with a moving and masterful “Joan of Arc”
The New York Philharmonic is the last member of New York’s major musical triumvirate to close its doors for the season, and the orchestra has done an excellent job of taking advantage of the spotlight. Last year’s Biennial was a huge success, and Wednesday night Alan Gilbert and the Philharmonic opened a four-show run of a presentation that is already sold out through the weekend. Fortunate indeed are the concertgoers who saw the name “Marion Cotillard” on the calendar and planned ahead.
Eighty minutes in length and presented without intermission, Arthur Honegger’s 1935 dramatic oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake) proved a thrilling end to New York’s concert season, exactly the sort of project at which the Philharmonic has excelled during Gilbert’s tenure.
Taken as a whole, this is a masterful work. The libretto is poetic and tightly packed, portraying the Maid of Orléans in her final moments and recalling some of the events that led her there. Honegger’s music is powerful and widely varied: the opening bars are dense and dark, seeming to threaten eighty minutes of impenetrable gloom. Instead, as we progress through the episodes of the libretto, Honegger’s score shows off a vast array of colors, moods, and textures, from the lushly lyrical to the carnivalesque.
Gilbert’s direction was reserved, and at times one wished for a freer hand to draw out the dynamic contrasts of the piece. On the whole, though, it would be hard to argue with his interpretation, which found as much drama in the score as what was being presented on stage. The New York Philharmonic played with precision and energy, and they were matched by the searing power of the New York Choral Artists. The piece doesn’t truly feature any major singing roles, but Simone Osborne stood out as Ste. Marguerite, her clear, chirping voice sounding angelic, indeed.
This solid musical foundation supported an extraordinary theatrical experience created by director Côme de Bellescize and his team. This staging, which debuted at the Saito Kinen (now Seiji Ozawa) Festival Matsumoto in 2012, creates as full an impression as can be imagined for a concert-hall setting. The set, designed by Sigolène de Chassy, places the chorus on wooden bleachers flanking a square platform with a wooden stake. A passerelle in front of the orchestra provides additional playing space for several scenes.
The rest of the mise-en-scène is accomplished through lighting and through the fanciful, brightly colored costumes by Colombe Lauriot Prévost. In one of the evening’s more whimsical turns, the trial scene (“Joan Given Up to the Beasts”) features the excellent Brooklyn Youth Chorus dressed as a flock of frolicking sheep.
The true stars of the work are its three speaking roles. Éric Génovèse was kind and caring as Brother Dominique, the monk who stays with Joan in her final hour. As the narrator and a host of others, Christian Gonon offered superb clowning, subtly adjusting his comedy for each character and appearing equally at home among the adults and the children onstage.
It’s no surprise that Marion Cotillard, the French film star, was brilliant in the title role. It was a gift to watch her, all the same. The noble innocence of the character came naturally to her, as did the tireless zeal that endures almost to the very end. For the entire duration of the work, the scaffold at the center of the stage is her prison; others come and go, but she remains. As Brother Dominique leaves, the Virgin Mary appears to console the doomed maiden, assuring her that she is not alone in her final moment. Cotillard, though isolated on her platform, seemed to draw the entire audience close, achieving that unique feeling of togetherness with an actor that can only be experienced in person.
Joan of Arc at the Stake will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Avery Fisher Hall. nyphil.org.