Odyssey Opera Reveals the Power and Beauty of Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans

Nélida Nassar   09.27.17

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For the opening of its 2017 – 2018 season, Odyssey Opera offered an impressive performance of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans (Orleanskaja deva, premiered in 1881). This one-time-only sold-out performance made Jordan Hall vibrate as never before. Although rarely performed, the work contains a number of beautiful airs. The libretto, inspired by the tragedy of Friedrich Schiller, “Die Jungfrau von Orléans” hinges on Joan of Arc’s more-than-spiritual love for a man, a desire which brings about her loss of divine favor. Unlike Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco, who has a happy ending despite the historical facts, Tchaikovsky’s Maid ends up at the stake, forgiven only by a choir of merciful angels.

Odyssey Opera’s musical director, Gil Rose, masterfully conducted the instrumentalists, the mixed chorus and the soloists. Absent in this concert version of the work were the dancers, and thus the performance lasted 4 full hours. Year after year, Rose has introduced many unknown operas to Boston audiences, and he continued on this course of research and exploration tonight, leading the musicians with obvious enthusiasm yet with suitable restraint when that was called for. Although at times the ensemble lacked nuance, it offered some moments of phenomenal power, as in the last measures of the score, which left the audience transfixed. The chorus projected a rich, well-modulated tone; and one could clearly hear the depth of the basses, an all too rare occurrence and a tribute to the exceptional quality of the singers in that section.

The division of the chorus on two occasions into two groups, one on stage and another on the balcony, was very effective,  but, all things considered, Jordan Hall’s relatively small size leaves one skeptical as to its suitableness as a venue for a monumental work because its acoustic capacities cannot handle the reverberation. On the other hand, the nine soloists, who stood in front of the orchestra, directly facing the public, sang beautifully without their voices ever interfering with each other. They were all first rate, down to the smallest roles, and they displayed a remarkable congeniality.

The challenging title role can be compared to one of great Wagnerian roles. It was sung by mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich, who projected her voice clearly and powerfully over her whole range throughout the evening. She performed brilliantly, even in the most subtle passages. In the space of one act, she seamlessly negotiated three consecutive long and difficult, but magnificent arias. Her treble was rich and poignant, sometimes even deliberately approaching a cry. Her father, Thibaut, whose doubts about his daughter – he believes her guided by the devil – ultimately dooms her, is sung by bass Kevin Thompson, who displayed the maturity and the seriousness demanded by the role. When he encountered his daughter in Act III, he pointed an accusing finger at her, meanwhile following the score with his other hand.

The role of King Charles VII was played by tenor Kevin Ray. Although he had a clear timber, he sometimes had to strain his voice, inevitably leading to certain inaccuracies. He did, however, bring great expressiveness to the role with his plaintive phrasing and eloquent gestures. His mistress, Agnes Sorel, was played by soprano Erica Petrocelli (a talented student at the New England Conservatory). If at times she had to struggle to make her lower notes audible over the orchestra, she sang very smoothly in the middle range and offered a suitably sharp treble.

Joan is at first betrothed to the peasant Raymond, whose role is sung by the tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan with outstanding musical intelligence and a clear, vibrant voice. Later, Joan falls in love with the Burgundian knight Lionel, performed by Aleksey Bogdanov, whose velvety timbre emerged triumphantly, although on a few occasions it had to compete with the orchestra. In the intense love scene in the last act, his lower register was deep and very beautiful.

David Kravitz interprets Dunois, one of the King’s companions, with a luminous and forceful medium range. The archbishop delivers the magnificent bass of the thundering Mikhail Svetlov, a singer whose impressive range allows him to produce very beautiful deep low notes with exquisite mastery. The peasant Bertrand features the broad and powerful voice of David Salsbery Fry (seen last year at Odyssey Opera as Don Alonzo in Massenet’s Le Cid). John Salvi is a soldier with a strong voice. The plot is well conveyed by Tchaikovsky’s moving and sometimes introspective music, but also by the Maid of Orleans herself, helped in part by her several changes of dress, from an immaculate white one to a black one to, finally, a grey one. (She was the only soloist with a costume change). Despite her broken heart, she faces her destiny with courage. Although she had to push her voice to be heard over the powerful chorus, it lost none of its beautiful coloring or angelic clarity in the process. The hall emptied considerably after the second intermission. Those who remained, however, were captivated by the work and by its interpretation, and offered a warm welcome back to Odyssey Opera on its opening night.

Odyssey Opera
Conductor: Gil Rose
Kate Aldrich: Joan of Arc
Kevin Thompson: Thibaut, Joan’s father
Kevin Ray: King Charles VII
Aleksey Bogdanov: Lionel, a Burgundian knight
Yeghishe Manucharyan: Raymond, Joan’s betrothed
David Kravitz: Dunois, a French knight
Mikhail Svetlov: The Archbishop
Erica Petrocelli: Agnès Sorel
David Salsbery Fry: Bertrand, a peasant
John Salvi: Soldier
Ryan Stoll: Lauret
Sarah Yanovitch: Angel