When Annie Rosen stars as Joan of Arc in the Middlebury Opera Company’s production of Tchaikovsky’s “Maid of Orleans” next week, few audiences will have anything to compare her performance to.
“It’s true!” said the mezzo-soprano. “I don’t know the last time this was done in North America, sure. It depresses me that it’s so obscure because of its quality.
Although Tchaikovsky called it “my masterpiece,” CMO artistic director Douglas Anderson was unfamiliar with the rarely performed opera – until he heard the overture on the radio. .
“The opening is amazing and heroic and wonderful and lifts the hair up the back of the neck,” he said.
Anderson returned home and found the opera online.
“I always have with any opera what I call the rewind test,” Anderson said. “If there’s something in it I rewind because I want to hear it again, I know it’s a possible opera for OCM. And I’ve listened to this overture three or four times thinking, if the rest of the work is this majestic and interesting, I’m going to want to check it out. Of course I did. “
“It’s so good that I asked my lighting designer Neil Curtis to light the ‘group’, the orchestra, because I want to focus on the seven minutes that allow us to start this exciting start,” said Anderson.
The Opera Company of Middlebury will present four performances of “The Maid of Orleans” October 1-9 at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury: at 7:30 pm on October 1, 7 and 9; and 2 p.m. on October 3.
The production will be entirely staged and sung in original Russian, with English surtitles. Musical director Michael Sakir will lead the orchestra of 25 musicians of the CMO.
Tchaikovsky’s “Maid of Orleans” premiered in 1881 at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia. The libretto is based on several sources, mainly “La Pucelle d’Orléans” by Friederich Schiller, and is the composer’s only opera in the style of French grand opera.
Saint Joan of Arc (circa 1412-1431), nicknamed the “Little Girl of Orleans”, was an illiterate peasant teenager, believing that she was acting under divine direction, led the French army in a victory that repelled the British attempt to conquer France 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. Twenty years later, a papal inquiry declared Joan’s trial illegal and quashed the conviction. She was canonized as a saint in 1920 and remains a French national heroine.
Tchaikovsky’s “Maid of Orleans” romanticizes Joan’s story, while taking a certain liberty with the facts, as practically all historical operas do. Most notably, Joan receives love interest, apocryphal, of course.
“I think Tchaikovsky took some liberties with that, that’s absolutely correct,” said Anderson, who directs and directs. “I told the actors from day one that I didn’t want to play it like an oratorio. I want to play it like a soap opera.
And Anderson knows what he’s talking about: he was once one of the writers on the CBS soap opera, “The Guiding Light.”
“There’s great drama there, but it’s subtext,” Anderson said of the opera. “We have to find the relationships. We have to find who is against it; we have to find who works for her. Everything is here.
For example, King Charles VII (tenor James Flora) is hiding from war, and his queen, Agnès Sorél, (soprano Meredith Lustig) pushes him.
“I’m making contemporary references to this powerful couple losing their grip,” Anderson said. “And I find the Archbishop (bass Isaiah Musik-Ayala) to be the bad guy in all of this. He can’t believe a girl did that, because women are worthless in society. He wants to have it from the start.
“We have a wonderful network of relationships that we talk about on rehearsal,” Anderson said. “When you take the time to do it that way, not just ‘park and bark’, it becomes a really interesting, relevant piece.”
Anderson’s biggest problem in the cast was finding the right mezzo.
“I kept insisting that she is a 19 year old girl, that’s what makes him really interesting,” he said. “I want a trained 30-year-old artist who can play a 19-year-old girl – that’s what’s fascinating.”
“We found Annie Rosen, who made her Metropolitan Opera debut last year,” Anderson said. “She’s sort of tiny – and fierce.”
Rosen acknowledged the historical differences, but recalled that it is an opera.
“I think she’s a fascinating character in this show – tough, vulnerable and human,” Rosen said. “Focusing on its humanity rather than its divinity, the opera is doing quite well. “
Vocally, Rosen finds the role as heroic as the character.
“It’s pretty well written,” she said. “It’s clear that Tchaikovsky knew what he was trying to do and he knew how to go about it. That said, heroic is a good word. It’s a difficult role. It’s pretty high, but it also has low extremes. It’s very dramatic, and it’s raw – it’s pretty relentless.
“These are all challenges that you have to overcome,” said Rosen. “But it’s so beautiful.”
Rosen appreciates that this is a period production, largely faithful to medieval times, when it takes place.
“That said, I know Doug brings a part of his own twist to it that I think might be unexpected. I love what he brings to it,” Rosen said. “He’s invested enough to focus on Joan as a human being – as a fallible, young person with a lot to do. “
Anderson sums up the opera’s biggest draw: “What if a 19-year-old high school student suddenly received a visit from the Virgin Mary and told her that she had to lead the United States Army? This is actually what happened to this farm girl.