“The Maid of Orleans” is Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous opera telling the tale of the legendary French soldier and saint Joan of Arc — sort of — and Opera Company of Middlebury opened a grand production Friday at Town Hall Theater that was lavish, beautifully sung and performed.
Saint Joan of Arc (c.1412-1431), nicknamed the “Maid of Orleans,” of course, was the illiterate teen peasant girl, believing she was acting under divine guidance, who led the French army to victory during the Hundred Years’ War. A year later she was captured, tried and burned at the stake as a heretic by the British and their French collaborators.
Tchaikovsky’s version, based on the book by Friedrich Schiller, tells it a little differently. After her victories, Joan has a love affair with Lionel of Burgundy, an enemy who switches sides after meeting Joan. Her father convinces the court that Joan is no longer a virgin, hence an emissary of Satan. The French court concurs and burns her at the stake. Oh well, that’s opera.
Still, as musical storytelling, “Maid of Orleans” proved quite beautiful and theatrically compelling in the Middlebury production directed by OCM Artistic Director Douglas Anderson. Conductor Michael Sakir led the 24-member OCM orchestra in a good imitation of the 100-piece orchestra it was written for.
The catalyst for the performance’s success was mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen’s powerful performance as Joan. Not only did she deliver both strength and vulnerability through her warm mezzo voice, she created a sympathetic and irresistible Joan. It was a brilliant performance.
Actually, the singing was excellent throughout. Delicious “Russian bass” sounds permeated the performance. Bass-baritone Paul La Rosa, as Joan’s lover Lionel of Burgundy, had a particularly rich voice and a tender sensitivity. Bass-baritone Daniel Klein was strong and hard as Thibaut, Joan’s condemning father. Joshua Jeremiah, another bass-baritone, delivered sanity convincingly as the king’s lieutenant Dunois. Finally, Isaiah Musik-Ayala gave the archbishop plenty of unpleasant authority.
There were a couple of fine tenors too. Charles VII was sung beautifully by James Flora, most notably in an overlong scene that the king spent whining. He was joined by the excellent soprano Meredith Lustig as the queen, Agnes Sorel. Tenor Lucas Levy had plenty of power and sympathy as Raymond, Joan’s unsuccessful suitor and her supporter throughout the opera. The 11-member chorus, which played various parts, was fine — though it was strange to hear “French people” singing in Russian!
Sakir and the all-Vermont orchestra deserve kudos for a really substantial performance. Although not always perfect on opening night, they sounded great and much bigger than they were. Principal flutist Hilary Goldblatt was responsible for some beautifully and expressively played extended solos.
Anderson’s simple but austere framework of a set, lit by Neil Curtis, was effective and allowed quick scene changes and focus on the action in this complex opera. But it was Debby Anderson’s lavish period costumes that delivered the flavor of real grand opera.
Opera Company of Middlebury’s “The Maid of Orleans” might not be accurate history, but it is certainly grand opera.