San Francisco Opera presents Tchaikovsky’s “Joan of Arc”

San Francisco
Opera. 6/3/06.

Tiger Turns Pussycat, Burning Bright

By Janos Gereben

Those unfamiliar with Verdi’s Il Trovatore and the story of Jeanne d’Arc,
should heed this warning: the very next sentence contains a spoiler for
both. Twenty years ago, the marvelous mezzo Dolora Zajick (then still "Zajic,"
without the "k") sang a sensational Azucena with the San Francisco Opera,
portraying a tragic character, whose mother and child both — the latter at
her own hand — perished by fire. Tonight, Zajick returned to the War
Memorial, in the title role of Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans, and, well,
she went up in smoke at the end herself.

In fact, it was smoke rather than fire that got to her, a veritable geyser,
making her disappear altogether. The director, Chris Alexander, must have
seen Götz Friedrich’s misguided production of Lohengrin in Bayreuth, with
a finale of Godfrey returning as a kind of R2D2 robot; when the smoke clears
at the end of Maid, Joan is gone, and instead there is a young child,
walking towards the audience as the curtain falls. The two transformations
make about the same sense: very little.

The Tchaikovsky opera, which premiered in St. Petersburg in 1881 (after
Onegin, but before Mazeppa and Pique Dame), took well over a century
to make its first appearance in San Francisco tonight, and there are some
good reasons for that. Musically, it’s a "minor Tchaikovsky," with a
sluggish mix of the "1812 Overture" and Swan Lake, but the real problem is
that dramatically, it – to use a technical term – sucks.

Forget history. Forget Schiller (on whose play the opera is allegedly
based). Forget Shaw’s superb St. Joan. Forget whatever you might have
gotten out of movies, from Carl Dreyer’s masterpiece (The Passion of Joan of Arc) to — heaven forgive him! — Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan. Just forget pretty much everything.

Tchaikovsky’s Joan leaves the farm, takes up arms, defeats the English (so far so good), but then she falls in love with the knight Lionel, from the Duke of Burgundy’s army, she falls apart, goes to the stake. Honestly! Here, the Mother Church has absolutely nothing to do with Joan’s fall, no problem with her interpreting God’s will directly, there is no court intrigue, or Inquisition, or English-French conflict, just one thing: Joan is in love, so she must die.

Add to that long scenes in the 2 1/4-hour production (with a lopsided 80-minute first act) that stop the action cold – such as the lengthy duet between King Charles VII and his mistress, Agnes, contributing nothing. OK, so musically and dramatically, "Maid" is a no-go. And yet, you should. Go. Absolutely.

It’s a fine physical production (Robert Dahlstrom’s, clean and sparse), Donald Runnicles is making the best of the score, Ian Robertson’s Opera Chorus is singing sublimely (and very Russian-ly), but – most importantly – here’s a brilliant, virtually flawless cast. If you like great singing with your opera, head to the War Memorial.

Zajick, of course, is well worth the price of admission all by her lonesome – there are trumpets in the voice, and honey, the projection is awesome, even a half-successful messa di voce impressed. Her farewell aria to the farm (something awfully close to Lensky’s aria) was especially memorable.

Joan’s father is sung by Philip Skinner, in his best performance recently. Young Sean Panikkar is Joan’s saintly would-be fiance, with an authentic Russian tenor sound (even if the recent Merola participant is from Sri Lanka).

For the very best of Russian tenors, there is Misha Didyk (from next door, Ukraine), singing the role of the King. Karel Slack is Agnes, doing well in the duet (which is her only bit in the opera). Burgundy is Rod Gilfry, and he too is doing better than at any time recently. Philip Cutlip’s Dunois stands up to Didyk’s King dramatically and vocally.

Lawrence Pech’s choreography is excellent; in the many danced or mimed scenes (such as a very long one about Death doing his thing), the corps includes such major local dancers as the SF Ballet’s Peter Brandenhoff. The director’s use of the chorus as spectators in modern-dress works better than you’d suspect. Divided by the stage-on-stage, the chorus watches,
participates, and does Job One: sings wonderfully.

By Janos Gereben

Tchaikovsky’s Maid of Orleans — now called Joan of Arc. [Gregson: I wonder why? Nobody knows who the Maid of Orleans is anymore? They confuse Orleans with New Orleans?]


Joan of Arc: Dolora Zajick
Charles VII: Misha Didyk
Dunois: Philip Cutlip*
Lionel: Rod Gilfry
Agnes Sorel: Karen Slack
Thibaut: Philip Skinner
Archbishop: Giorgio Giuseppini

Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Director: Christopher Alexander
Production Designer: Robert Dahlstrom*
Costume Designer: Walter Mahoney
Lighting Designer: Robert Hill
Choreographer: Lawrence Pech
Chorus Director: Ian Robertson

*San Francisco Opera debut
Cast, programs and schedules are subject to change

Approximate running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes
Sung in Russian with English Supertitles

Sat. June 3, 7:30 pm
Tue. June 6, 7:30 pm
Fri. June 9, 7:30 pm
Wed. June 14, 7:30 pm
Sun. June 18, 12 pm
Fri. June 23, 7:30 pm * Cancelled, See Below
Wed. June 28, 7:30 pm

Sat. July 1, 7:30 pm * Cancelled, See Below

The performances noted above have been cancelled. Please contact the Box Office at (415) 864-3330 to exchange your ticket for another performance date, or with any questions.

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