Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher at the Concertgebouw

Arthur Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, with a text by Paul Claudel, is a remarkable work. Joan on the stake, as she awaits deliverance into heaven, reviews her life. In contrasting the mystical and sublime with worldly and bestial humanity, the composition provides in musical and literary images a vivid picture of medieval life from sordid gluttony through power-driven political machinations to religious ecstasy. It is as if one is viewing a Breughel painting.

To achieve the relevant effects Honegger draws on a broad range of musical styles. Joan’s devotional ardour, and the voices summoning her, are communicated through softly lyrical, ethereal sounds. For her prowess in leading the French forces, the brass intones military, nationalistic themes. For everyday life in village and town folk melodies are introduced and for clerical interventions parodies of plainsong. Most brilliant of all perhaps are the comic scenes of Joan’s trial and condemnation. The main protagonists for the former are animals, all given appropriate characterful sonorities: a snorting, haughty pig presides over the court, the clerk is a braying donkey, while the jury made up of bleating sheep issues its verdict. To determine the victim’s fate, the kings of France and England interrupt their consumption of wine to engage in a game of cards, this accompanied by witty interplay of woodwind and strings, reflecting frivolity and superficiality.

A “dramatic oratorio” it might be, but the performance at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw moved it in the direction of opera. This was a consequence particularly of Caecilia Thunnissen’s most effective “mise-en-espace”. Already chained to her stake, Joan was placed high above the orchestra in the organ gallery, halfway to heaven as it were, where she could observe and comment on all that took place below her. The angels sang from the upper tiers seats right and left. The ordinary mortals engaged in their bantering and the animals cavorted at the front of the stage, often with stylised movements. Garbed in pompous costumes, the political leaders entered, and remained, at the back of the orchestra.

The constant shifting between sung and spoken text worked smoothly. It cannot be easy for the actress playing Joan to avoid kitschiness, but Judith Chemla, in her all-white trouser suit, had the audience in the palm of her hands as, with complete conviction, she poignantly communicated a combination of innocence, energy, pride and exultant belief. Among a strong cast of singers, the tenor Jean-Noël Briend excelled as the Cochon. It was, of course, a joy to hear the Concertgebouw Orchestra apply its considerable qualities to the score. The musical highlight of the evening was for me the penultimate section in which Joan recalls episodes of her childhood with the angels’ voices and the sounds of nature. The soft playing of the strings and woodwind was exquisite. The Rotterdam Symphony Chorus, performing with the orchestra for the first time, impressively met the considerable demands made of them. The conductor Stéphane Denève exerted masterly control, while not restraining passion or subduing freshness of wit and delicacy.