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Thread: The Maid of Orleans at New Orleans Opera

          
   
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  1. #1
    Senior Member Involved Member Nemorino's Avatar
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    The Maid of Orleans at New Orleans Opera

    THE MAID OF ORLEANS

    Opera in 4 Acts, 6 Scenes
    Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
    Libretto by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
    Based on The Maid of Orleans by Friedrich Schiller (translated by Vasily Zhukovsky), and numerous other sources

    Performed by New Orleans Opera
    In English, translation by Richard Balthazar
    February 7 & 9, 2020.
    Performance reviewed – February 9, 2020


    CAST & CREATIVE TEAM

    Joan of Arc – Hilary Ginther
    Charles VII – Casey Candebat
    Agnes Sorel – Elana Gleason
    Thibaut – Kevin Thompson
    Dunois – Michael Chioldi
    Lionel – Joshua Jeremiah
    The Archbishop – Raymond Aceto

    Conductor – Robert Lyall
    Stage Director – Jose Maria Condemi
    Scenic Designer – Steven C. Kemp
    Lighting Designer – Don Darnutzer
    Chorus Master – Carol Rausch
    Choreographer – Gretchen Erickson
    Fight Director – Mike Yahn


    INTRODUCTION TO THE COMPANY

    This was my first time to the New Orleans Opera. It had been my wish to do so for some time, but it made for a very long weekend of travel from Austin and I didn’t want to go for just any ol’ opera. The Maid of Orleans was the perfect opera to inspire this trip, because it’s rarely performed in the U.S., especially not in a full production.

    New Orleans considers itself the “first city of opera in the United States”. Opera was first performed there in the 1790s, and it boasts the American premieres of many operas by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini & Meyerbeer. I am pleased to report that their current opera company is worthy of this incredible heritage.

    For a regional opera company – which only mounts 3 mainstage opera productions per season and 1 or 2 smaller productions in a smaller theater – the New Orleans Opera has their own stage shop, and "builds" their own productions more often than other companies their size (or even larger). They can then rent these productions to other regional opera companies.

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    Their mainstage productions are given in the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, located a few blocks from the French Quarter in the Louis Armstrong Park. Having been built in 1973, it’s brown brick exterior is drab-but-functional (it withstood Hurricane Katrina, although it still had to close for several years for interior renovations).

    Inside, the auditorium is even more plain – plain white walls with just a slight acoustical curvature, and only a single balcony, but this balcony is quite wide and I think a larger number of seats are closer to the stage than most halls. Unlike other large halls where singers’ voices are swallowed up by the large space, in this hall everyone sounded loud and clear. So clear, I rarely needed the English surtitles – usually only in chamber opera can I follow without the surtitles - the singers were able to project but remain in a comfortable dynamic level for their voices.

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    THE OPERA

    The biggest issue with this opera lies in the libretto, and it was only later that I learned that Tchaikovsky compiled the libretto himself. Acts I and II both feel very long and dramatically inert, with long stretches of expository dialogue and an obligatory ballet scene which does not advance the plot. (It appears from the list of numbers in the score that at least part of the ballet section was cut for this performance, which is a relief from my point-of-view). There are a lot of really good choral numbers, though. This is typical of Russian operas drawing heavily from the French grand opera tradition. There would have been a lot of spectacle on the stage to appease the audience here: colorful backdrops, ornate costumes, pomp & circumstance. Acts III & IV are shorter and breeze through 4 different scene changes and a lot of action, and I thought they were very effective and exciting. Joan and Lionel’s final duet in Act IV Scene I is perhaps the most well-known excerpt; I recognized it instantly from Russian opera compilations.

    New Orleans Opera presented "Joan of Arc", as they branded it, in a new English translation. This opera doesn’t quite hold enough interest for American opera companies to expend the extra effort training their chorus in Russian, nor would a lot of American singers learn the part in Russian knowing they will likely only sing it once. I am in favor of English translations in cases where the opera would otherwise not be performed (or performed with atrocious pronunciation?); it may be that we are getting a diluted version of the work, but at least we can have some sense of the work theatrically.

    As it turns out, this was a remarkable translation. The dialogue sounded very natural, and it was some of the best opera singing in English that I have heard; with vowels in all the right places for natural, legato phrases. I later learned that it was Richard Balthazar’s second version of translation of this opera; the first was more faithful to the specifics of the Russian text. Overall, I think I prefer changing things to sound more natural in English, but reading his own blog it also sounds like he might have made changes that would significantly alter one’s understanding of Tchaikovsky’s intentions which I’m not sure I agree with.


    THE PRODUCTION & PERFORMANCE

    This was a simple but effective production with two painted backdrops, three raised platforms which could be configured in different ways to suggest a throne, castle ramparts, or a pyre, and several set pieces that could be lowered and raised, which included the overhanging branches of a large tree. The sword fighting of the battle that opens Act III was some of the better stage fighting I’ve seen. The pyre came off pretty well with orange lights and a lot of smoke. Basically, this production utilizes all the old stage tricks, and you can get a taste of the results with this promo:



    The cast was uniformly good, and it sounded like the hall is a good one for singers; no one was having to really “push” their voices. Even though some of the singers were very young in their careers, they sounded like big, mature voices. The biggest buzz was around mezzo-soprano Hilary Ginther as Joan, who has a beautifully rich voice, and had the most to do dramatically and musically. I also particularly liked the large, full-voiced tenor of Casey Candebat, and the warm baritone of Joshua Jeremiah.

    I think another obstacle to performing this opera more often is that after Joan its hard to tell who the other leads are; there are about 5 or 6 other roles that are pretty large but not really given the heft that they could have. The lust interest, Lionel, doesn’t show up until Act III, and by then the opera is more than halfway over. Credit to the production for putting together such a large cast of such uniform quality.

    And the New Orleans Opera has a very fine orchestra and chorus. The chorus had a lot to do and sounded great.

    RATING: A

    Bravo to the New Orleans Opera for taking a chance on something outside the usual repertoire!

    (I guess it'd be too much to ask them to consider renewing their heritage of performing the works of Meyerbeer?...)

  2. #2
    Opera Lively Media Consultant Top Contributor Member Ann Lander (sospiro)'s Avatar
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    Thank you Nemorino - great review.
    "Every theatre is an insane asylum, but an opera theatre is the ward for the incurables."

    FRANZ SCHALK, attributed, Losing the Plot in Opera: Myths and Secrets of the World's Great Operas

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