Sylvie Testud (Jeanne d’Arc) – (acting part), Eric Ruf (Frère Dominique) – (acting part), Mélanie Boisvert (La Vierge), Isabelle Cals (Marguerite), Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Catherine),  Eric Huchet (Une Voix 1/Porcus/Héraut I/Le Clerc), Nicolas Testé (Une Voix II/ Héraut II/Un autre paysan) 

Chœurs de l’Opéra National de Montpellier et d’Angers Nantes Opéra, Solistes et Chœurs d’Enfants Opéra Junior, Orchestre National de Montpellier LR c. Alain Altinoglu p.& d. Jean-Paul Scarpitta, video director Don Kent 

Accord - Universal Music France 442 918-1 (139 minutes)

Live recording 13 July 2006


I wondered if this ‘dramatic oratorio’ was outside the remit of an opera magazine, as solo singing is peripheral, yet it was a regular fixture at the Paris Opéra, notching up over one hundred performances in only twelve years after its belated premiere there in 1950. Arthur Honegger aspired to operatic success, yet considered the form passé; instead channeling his dramatic talents into a series of dramatic oratorios, the first of which, Le roi David (1921) established his international career and ran for three consecutive months. Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (1939) took a while to achieve its full form – the substantial prologue was added after it had been widely performed, at the request of Paul Claudel, to hammer home the message of intolerance in troubled times, (this production emphasizes this with film footage of the Occupation) and the full version was first heard after the Liberation in 1947.


This is an exemplary issue, that comes with exhaustive notes about the piece’s inception and a documentary that replays and fillets the piece, interlarded with comments, guidance and insights from the Jeanne, the conductor and director, Jean-Paul Scarpitta. He is particularly compelling articulating how the music frees Jeanne d’Arc’s inner life from the constraints of Claudel’s poem, and it is obvious from the total focus of the production, that he trusts the music completely. He does not gussy the piece along when it takes its time, and this confidence results in an absorbing experience that compels throughout its 70 minute span. Visuals are sparse, but telling, with coups de theatre ­a-plenty. The problem of a static oratorio chorus is managed brilliantly. The video direction is unfailingly sensitive, so that when curtain calls occur, it is a jolt – the stage has somehow been transcended. Sylvie Testud and Eric Ruf - both highly accomplished stage and film actors - are in their very different ways, totally compelling, and deal well with the text, which has moments of affect and obscurity that some may find trying.


Alain Altinoglu, who has an impressive track-record in opera houses world-wide for one so young, gives a nuanced and fluent reading, and the Montpellier forces are impressive, and the chorus acquits itself well, negotiating Honegger’s dense textures and tricky intonation with ease. Some of the heavenly voices sound rather mortal, but these are fleeting. I suppose Honegger is an unfashionable figure, and there are a few moments of religious uplift that have been tarnished through appropriation by Hollywood, yet the score’s contrasts of extreme dissonance and sugar place it squarely in the twentieth century French religious music pantheon with Poulenc and Messiaen, even though the sound-world is maybe closer to Vaughan-Williams. It is good to hear the ondes-martinot descend from its Messiaenic heaven to depict howling dogs, farting donkeys and more. However eclectic, the score sounds composed in a single breath; an organic entity that this expert production reflects. Highly recommended.


© Julian Grant 2009