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Joan of Arc inspires her troupe

San Francisco
San Francisco Opera
06/03/2006 -  and 6, 9, 14, 18 and 28 June 2006
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: The Maid of Orleans
Dolora Zajick (Joan), Misha Didyk (Charles VII), Philip Cutlip (Dunois); Rod Gilfry (Lionel), Karen Slack (Agnès Sorel), Phillip Skinner (Thibaut), Giorgio Giuseppini (Archbishop), Peter Strummer (Bertrand), Sean Panikkar (Raymond), Torlef Borsting (A Soldier), Virginia Pluth (Voice from the Angelic Choir), David Bier (Solo Dancer), Valery Portnov (Lauret)
Christopher Alexander (Director), Robert Dahlstrom (Production Designer), Walter Mahoney (Costume Designer), Robert Hill (Lighting Designer), Lawrence Pech (Choreographer)
Ian Robertson (Chorus Director)
Donald Runnicles (Conductor)

It was 1877, a traumatic time in his life. Suffering from a marriage of disastrous consequences and feelings of self-reproach, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, nonetheless, came to complete one of his classic works, Eugene Onegin. Despite his personal set backs, this success gave him momentum to move ahead into another chapter of his musical artistry.

In an attempt to cater to Westernized tastes, Tchaikovsky set forth to compose a Meyerbeerish opera on a grand scale. His teacher, Anton Rubinstein, recently completed the successful work of Makkaveyi (1877), an opera based on the story of the Maccabees. From 1878-79 Tchaikovsky began work on Orleanskaya Dyeva, better known today as The Maid of Orleans. The score is based on Friedrich von Schiller’s literary work, Die Jungfrau von Orleans; however, Tchaikovsky’s was not the first of it’s kind, rather his was the eighth opera to be based on the Joan of Arc play.

Interestingly enough, Tchaikovsky wrote his own libretto, emulating one of the greatest librettists of the time, Eugène Scribe (1791-1861). The Russian composer borrowed ideas from Scribe, and adhered to the successful recipe of developing individual acts into complete climaxes, using all musical inventions such as ensembles, choruses, and full orchestra.

Tchaikovsky was in awe with using the opera chorus as a narrative element, a concept he took from Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (1874) in which the Muscovites unveil their own historic fate. In San Francisco Opera’s work Director Chris Alexander executed this notion of the so-called “ancient Greek drama”.

At times the story telling alternated with the chorus observing the action on the “stage within a stage”, eliciting the Shakespearian Globe theatre. Robert Dahlstrom’s set was ingenious in concept, but fell short of artistic vision. Using a stationary set, the only movement came from a few vertical and horizontal panels, augmented by simple colored background projections. Perhaps symbolic in nature, it allowed the audience to conjure their own ideas. By the end of Act IV the set grew tedious and dull, the only saving grace being Joan’s final demise ending in a burst of magical smoke.

From the moment the curtain opened showing the peasant farm girl from Domrémy to the final burning at the stake, Dolora Zajick took command as the true heroine of the day. The stage was energized each time the dramatic mezzo-soprano encountered singing with another principal. First exemplified by Joan’s trio in Act I with Thibaut (Philip Skinner), and Raymond (Sean Panikkar), she quickly set the course. From Joan’s farewell aria (“Adieu, forêts,”) in Act I to her prophetic visions and march, and a cappella duets, Zajick was both mesmerizing and captivating.

Kudos goes to the up-and-coming Karen Slack. Earlier this year, Slack quickly jumped into the spotlight at The Metropolitan Opera by replacing first off, Barbara Frittoli, and then Veronica Villarroeal in the title role of Verdi’s Luisa Miller. Her rich tones, accompanied by resplendent period royal dress resulted in a beautiful rendition of Agnès Sorel’s aria in Act II.

The same can be said about King Charles VII (Misha Didyk). Despite some erratic moments, he managed to hold his own in this pivotal role. He flourished in the softer musical sections where the tones rang clearly, especially during his duet with Agnès in Act II.

Despite the gift of a beautiful voice, Dunois (Philip Cutlip) was never able to pull himself out from under the almighty orchestra. Several times his voice was completely washed out. This was an unfortunate circumstance since his voice resounds with a wonderful timbre.

If a strong sense of secular passion was to cut into Joan’s spiritual visions, it remained a convincing but somewhat diluted prophecy. In stature Rod Gilfry’s portrayal of Joan’s lover, Lionel, is apt; however, the difficulty therein lies in the voice itself. The pleasing Gilfry voice continually battled with the music. Many would have hoped for his intensity to soar, but at times left us unfulfilled.

Donald Runnicles masterfully ran through the Russian score with complete confidence. Tchaikovsky’s powerful music requires a conductor to master all aspects of the work which he did successfully.

The other supporting cast members maintained the troupe’s firm foundation: Philip Skinner (Thibaut), Sean Panikkar (Raymond), Giorgio Giuseppini (The Archbishop), Peter Strummer (Bertrand), Torlef Borsting (A Soldier), Virginia Pluth (Voice from the Angelic Choir), David Bier (Solo Dancer), and Valery Portnov (Lauret)

The Maid of Orleans is a seldom seen work. Our thanks go to former General Director Pamela Rosenberg and Dolora Zajick herself (who personally requested the work be performed by San Francisco Opera) for making this possible. If you are a Tchaikovsky lover, please take this opportunity to hear this rich and opulent music. Despite finding unimaginative sets, you will leave the opera house knowing you have been one of a few honored patrons to experience such a historic work centered around a fascinating yet mysterious woman who supposedly saved France in the 1400’s.

Christie Grimstad



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