In the opera world, a 70-year-old playing Joan of Arc is just business as usual. When was the last time you saw a geriatric Juliet on the theatrical stage? Or a Hamlet past retirement in the movies? But leave it to opera to give us this sideshow-worthy attraction and more: grandmotherly Salomes hobbling through the Dance of the Seven Veils, paunchy, balding Siegfrieds puffing and sweating their way around papier-mâché forests.
Of course, if it’s 70-year-old soprano Mirella Freni playing Joan of Arc, as she does in the Washington National Opera’s new staging of Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans, that’s a whole ’nother thing. Certainly no one’s going to confuse the superannuated Freni with her cutie-pie younger self. Her face, now heavy-lidded and jowly, shows the passage of the half-century since her stage debut, and her tiny frame has grown stockier with time. Indeed, one can understand the moniker rumored to be buzzing around backstage: Joan of AARP.
But damned if Freni hasn’t kept those trademark dimples and that girlish twinkle in her eye. Within moments of her first appearance onstage, the years fall away and that intensely pretty young soprano who dazzled in the past is standing before us again. The production, imported from Turin’s Teatro Regio, has far less to do with rediscovering a forgotten masterpiece—a dubious claim for this opera—than with providing a vehicle for a singer of astonishing longevity and unflagging artistry.
And though she was never the kind of nuanced actress that Callas or Rysanek was, Freni has always been an emotionally honest performer. She inhabits the character of Joan with an urgency that conveys both the French national heroine’s restless youth and her religious fervor. But what counts most in a career-tribute production like this one is the chance to revisit (perhaps for the last time) a voice that, by any biological imperative, should have given out 10 or 15 years back. That Freni is still able to negotiate a taxing role at her age is remarkable enough. That she sounds better than most of the 40-something sopranos on the current scene is mind-blowing.
Admittedly, the lower end of her voice has lost some power and sounds a bit stitched-together. But the middle still boasts her characteristic mix of sweetness and tang, of soubrettish pertness and spinto strength. And with the vibrato firmly under control, her high notes are tonally succulent and splendidly huge. Most important, though, she still sounds confidently and recognizably like herself. Of the survivors of the last generation’s operatic royalty, only WNO general director and übertenor Plácido Domingo can claim a comparably miraculous Indian summer.
The soprano is surrounded by baritones and basses of a uniquely Russian ilk: They possess a velvet timbre and seamless legato, but they deliver ’em with the subtlety of a kolkhoz threshing machine. And most of these guys apparently subscribe to the old school of Russian opera acting: Stride to the edge of the stage, plant yourself like an irritated grizzly, and open your yap. When your scene is finished, simply stride away again. Some of them have even mastered the rarefied art of waving their arms at the other singers while avoiding anything resembling eye contact. How much they save this production in such distracting elements as character motivation, credible behavior, and dramatic tension is incalculable.
But, boy, those fellas can sing. Standouts are baritone Evgeny Nikitin as Joan’s nightmare of a father, Thibaut d’Arc; baritone Vladimir Moroz as the rabidly nationalistic French knight Dunois; and bass Feodor Kuznetsov in the boilerplate scary-archbishop role. All possess rolling, mahogany voices that thrill by the sheer solidity and smooth finish of their sound. And Sergei Leiferkus, whose unmistakable high baritone is in sterling form and whose reptilian sibilants are as vivid as ever, actually makes an effort to inhabit the same scene as Freni when they have a duet together.
Unfortunately, the singer is saddled here with the role of Joan’s love interest, Lionel, a Burgundian knight who’s defected to the invading British army. It seems that one gander at the yummy Joan makes him switch sides again to fight tooth and nail for his native France. Among a cast of characters who, Joan aside, are pure cardboard, Lionel stands out for being both cardboard and absurdly implausible. But that’s always been the problem with this opera: The unerring dramatic pace and psychological layering Tchaikovsky displayed in his two operatic masterworks, the earlier Eugene Onegin and the later The Queen of Spades, are nowhere to be found. Of course, the source material for those works was Pushkin, adapted by skilled librettists. For Maid, Tchaikovsky made the questionable decision to write his own libretto, bowdlerizing a Schiller play to turn the German playwright’s historical drama into a conventionally operatic weepie.
The score, though never less than finely crafted, is too busy trying to ape French opera for it to sound consistently Tchaikovskian, let alone to possess the intensity and sweep of his great works. What emerges in Maid is a synthetic, episodic hybrid—part Massenet, part Verdi, part pageant, part choral work. The only things that save it from collapsing entirely are the composer’s gift for melody—particularly in Joan’s soaring arias—and his skill at building climactic ensembles.
Conductor Stefano Ranzani is clearly a man in love with this music, warts and all. He takes his time to distill some orchestral perfume here and there—check out the extensive flute solo in the Act 1 prelude—and works the orchestra and chorus into a controlled frenzy for the ensembles. Significantly, he brings out the fat, growling, oh-so-Russian bass sound in the lower orchestral brass and the chorus, providing weight and attack in the Big Moments. Praise, too, to chorus master Steven Gathman for the discipline and breadth of sound he gets from his charges in a piece that’s a workout for any vocal group.
The Italian production team of stage director Lamberto Puggelli and set and costume designer Luisa Spinatelli marks the beginnings of acts rather effectively, with proscenium-filling sheets of fabric catching projections of stark landscapes, then cascading to the floor as the action begins. There’s also some clever stagecraft that uses undulating cloth and projected flames to evoke Joan’s burning at the stake. Otherwise, though, the staging does the piece few favors. Scenes aren’t blocked so much as they’re arranged into artful, largely two-dimensional tableaux, the whole opera being treated like a ceremonial oratorio.
But what is it with Italian opera directors and fabric? Remember Piero Faggioni’s alienating, immovable scrim in the WNO Don Quichotte several seasons back? Or Paolo Miccichè’s almost pathologically distracting curtains tracking noisily on- and offstage in Aida during the company’s exile at DAR Constitution Hall? Sure, those act-openings are swell. But how many times does Puggelli have to repeat the gesture of having sheer curtains billow down to be whooshed off into the wings? And let’s not get into the silliness with the chorus wrapping itself in acres of this material or the occasional singer grabbing 50 feet of polyester and sprinting back and forth across the stage with it like some renegade Doris Humphrey dancer. Once again, there’s way too much textile for the production’s own good.
Funny how most of the dramatic action in WNO’s Maid is confined to oversized props, while the majority of the cast members just stand around and sing. But maybe that was the idea all along: to treat the scenery as pretty decoration and to treat the performers as just more scenery behind Freni. After all, nothing pays tribute to a legendary diva quite like a one-woman show.CP