HONEGGER Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher
The first collaboration between Arthur Honegger and Paul Claudel, Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, dates from 1938, though it only acquired definitive form in 1944 when composer and writer, conscious of Jeanne’s status as an icon of wartime resistance, added the haunting prologue that equates occupied France with the primal chaos that preceded the Creation. Immensely powerful, it remains a difficult piece to get right in performance. The dramaturgy is rooted in Claudelian ideas of total theatre, which look back to Wagnerian concepts of Gesamtkunstwerk and forwards to late-20th-century multimedia experimentation, and the non-linear, symbolist narrative can seem fragmentary if not carefully handled. Jeanne and Frère Dominique, the spiritual comforter who prepares her for martyrdom, are played by actors: as Jacques Bonnaure’s booklet-notes remind us, the equal weight given to speech and song has antecedents in opéra comique.
Though intended for the theatre, we encounter it more frequently in the concert hall, and this new recording, issued simultaneously on CD and DVD, derives from a 2012 performance at Barcelona’s Sala Pau Casals. The acting is tremendous, and indeed Marion Cotillard’s Jeanne and Xavier Gallais’s Dominique are probably as good as it gets. Cotillard marvellously captures Jeanne’s innocence, toughness and terrifying doubts; Gallais is compassionate, tender, and at times tellingly fierce as he leads her towards her God. The impact is immeasurably heightened on DVD by our being able to see both the sorrowing beauty of Gallais’s face and the extraordinary way Cotillard’s eyes let us know exactly what is going on in Jeanne’s mind and soul in moments of silent stillness.
Musically, however, things are more equivocal. Conductor Marc Soustrot pitches the score somewhere between Seiji Ozawa’s clear-minded urgency and Serge Baudo’s grander, more emotive reading. The big set pieces – the bestiary court with its Art Deco flippancy, the mock-Baroque political card game – register wonderfully well, the orchestral playing is handsomely detailed and the choral singing sharply focused.
The soloists are problematic, though. Away from tenor Yann Beuron and twinkly-eyed bass Eric Martin-Bonnet (ideally you need to watch him, too), there’s too much unsteadiness, and the curdled sounds produced by the celestial trio awaiting Jeanne’s entry into Paradise don’t exactly suggest sanctity. The DVD is essential viewing; but if you prefer audio alone, then Baudo and Ozawa offer greater musical consistency. The difficulty in obtaining the DVD of Roberto Rossellini’s full-on 1954 film of the work, with Ingrid Bergman as Jeanne, is still, meanwhile, to be regretted.