Arthur Honegger’s “Joan of Arc at the Stake,” which Opera Sacra has announced is its last production, is one of the strangest dramas you will ever see.
It is part 1920s Parisian avant garde, part medieval pageant and part choral spectacle. It involves a strange and unusual instrument called the Ondes Martenot, and a virtuoso on that instrument named Genevieve Grenier had to be imported from Quebec, Canada.
Also setting this work apart is that the two leading roles, St. Joan and her confessor, Brother Dominic, do not call for singing. They are played by soprano Colleen Marcello and by Mike Randall, the WKBW-TV meteorologist.
All this adds up to a lot of buzz and helped to make this production, which took place Friday night and will again be performed 8 p.m. Saturday at St. Joseph University Church, one of the hottest tickets in town. So does emotion over the announcement that Opera Sacra will end its 40-year run. Perhaps someone will step forward and keep the company going. I am beginning to think someone will. Why waste this momentum?
“Joan of Arc at the Stake” might be too outlandish for some. But it is vivid and I do not think anyone who sees it will forget it.
The sound, for starters, was enormous. The production Friday was sold out, and the big church was packed. Still the chorus of voices was like a tidal wave. An army of voices was on stage – the Buffalo Master Chorale, the Buffalo Niagara Youth Choir and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo Choir. They and the orchestra are conducted by Doreen Rao.
The virtuosity and strength of the chorus and musicians were the best facet of the production. The staging was effective too, though it was simple. A tree in the center of the sanctuary was lighted in various colors for various scenes. When Joan is looking back on her childhood May celebrations, it was a bright spring green. When the tree became the stake, red glimmers suggested the flames.
It helps to read the synopsis beforehand. Otherwise the hallucinogenic scenes can be confusing. Joan’s accusers from within the Catholic Church are a pig and an ass spouting Latin. The saint’s betrayers appear in a subsequent scene as the knaves from a deck of cards.
Costumes are excellent. And Honegger and his colleagues clearly had fun with these scenes. The ass cavorts about to the tune of the Christmas carol “The Friendly Beasts.” It is said to have originated in 12th century France, and it’s also called “The Song of the Ass.”
The pig, Porcus, laughs as he struts about in his bishop’s robes. You feel guilty enjoying these scenes, and probably you are supposed to.
Other scenes involve Mother Wine of Burgundy, representing the South of France, the Voices of the Earth, who speak Latin, Joan’s own voices, the Virgin Mary and various stars. It can get to feel like a bit of a muddle, and Honegger probably could have edited it better. Also, the unusual instrument, the Ondes Martinot, seemed lost in everything else going on. Only once did I really hear it solo – a weird, singular, unmistakable wail.
As for the two leads, they came off as kind of straightjacketed. Randall, though he projected some warmth, was reduced to lines of monotonic solemnity. Marcello looked lovely in a white gown, but seemed too mature to play Joan.
And still – and still – something worked. There was a strange poignant quality. Marcello did get across the innocence of Joan, and between that and the music, you felt the saint’s growing fear of her fate, as well as her growing faith in God.
“St. Joan of Arc, pray for us,” said the Rev. Jacob Ledwon, Opera Sacra’s founder and leader, prefacing the production. That completed the picture. This is no fairy tale. Joan was a woman who actually lived, and the opera, though highly stylized, tells a true story.
A story that, for better and worse, continues. The prayer to St. Joan followed a moment of silence for the victims of the recent terrorism in Paris. In tribute to them, both productions begin with a singing of the French national anthem.
In tribute to Opera Sacra, the first performance was followed by proclamations from Mayor Byron Brown and County Executive Mark Poloncarz, honoring the company and declaring it Father Jacob C. Ledwon Day in Buffalo.