As the first part of an autumn diptych on the iconic Maid of Orleans, La Monnaie presents in November 2019 Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, a dramatic oratorio by Arthur Honegger on a libretto by Paul Claudel. In a feverish dream of songs, spoken words and music, this work of extreme originality takes us into some key passages of the life of Joan of Arc when, alone, approaching death, she has to face herself and her France. Who else but Romeo Castellucci to transpose the mystical visions and inner conflicts of this young woman into sublime theatre? The Italian total artist joins our former music director Kazushi Ono, who finds himself for the first time again in the orchestra pit of La Monnaie ten years after having left. A co-production of La Monnaie, Theater Basel, Perm State Opera and Ballet Theatre, and the Lyon Opera, where the creation took place in 2017 and left the press and the public astonished.
Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher was commissioned by Ida Rubinstein (1885-1960), a ballerina, actress and Russian patron who, in France before and after the First World War, counted among her friends, Ravel, Stravinsky, Gide and Diaghilev. Inspired by a few plays of the Théophiliens, the theatre company of the Sorbonne that specialised in medieval mysteries, she gave the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) the idea of a drama around the character of Joan of Arc. For the text, they originally thought of Jehanne d’Orliac, but they found her work a little lightweight light. Then they set their sights on Paul Claudel (1868-1955). If the French diplomat and illustrious man of letters, a staunch Catholic, felt a great affinity with this historical-spiritual subject, it is precisely for this reason that he declined the offer. It took a sign from above, on a train trip to Brussels (where he was ambassador of France) for the author of Le Soulier de Satin and L’Annonce faite à Marieto change his mind and finally accept the commission.
Honegger immediately fell under the spell of Claudel’s text and poetic musicality. He began composing the oratorio on 3 January 1935 and finished it, according to the last page of the autograph, on August 30.
The orchestration was ready on 30 December of the same year. Honegger’s music not only reflects the different stylistic registers of the libretto, but also the turbulent and overbearing spirit of the 20’s and 30’s. Austere spiritual songs reminiscent of Bach alternate with French contemporary music, cubist blocks of sound and even a subversive line of jazz and music hall.The dramatic oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher is therefore not easy to catalogue. It presents the apparent characteristics of an oratorio, with a large orchestra and a choir, but the main characters have spoken roles. The orchestration is reminiscent of an ancient tragedy or a medieval mystery, but with a chromatic and polytonal musical language.
Visionary, significant, ambiguous: Honegger’s mystère lyrique requires a director like Romeo Castellucci, who has already presented at La Monnaie the audacious and very personal interpretations of Parsifal (2011), Orphée et Eurydice (2013) and Die Zauberflöte (2018). Castellucci knows how to penetrate the heart of Western founding myths and use them to make innovative and uncompromising theatre. The same goes for the character of Joan of Arc: he looks straight into her eyes, without prejudice. To relieve Jeanne of any historic burden, Castellucci places her in a resolutely different context: the realistic and secular setting of a classroom, at the time when it still functioned as a training ground for the French republican myth. It all starts with the end of a regular class day. The bell rings, the students happily leave the classroom, a caretaker enters the room. He came to tidy up, but it will take him a long time before everything is sorted out…
The Japanese conductor Kazushi Ono was the musical director at La Monnaie from 2002 to 2008. Then, he held the position of first conductor of the Lyon Opera until 2017. After more than ten years, he returns to Brussels for his first opera at the helm of La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra and Choir. The choir is prepared by choirmaster Christophe Talmont and reinforced for the occasion by the Children’s and Youth Choirs and the Choral Academy of La Monnaie, both under the direction of Benoît Giaux. Kazushi Ono has already previously directed this production with great success in Lyon and therefore knows the director Romeo Castellucci who, as always, also takes care of the costumes and sets. As in his previous productions at La Monnaie, Castellucci is supported by dramaturge Piersandra Di Matteo and artistic collaborator Silvia Costa.
French actress Audrey Bonnet plays Jeanne d’Arc and occupies the stage almost alone for nearly an hour and a half. In Lyon, she has displayed so much verve that one can say that she caused a sensation. Nevertheless, she is occasionally accompanied by Sébastien Dutrieux. Bonnet’s opponent was recently to be seen in la Monnaie in the world creation of Le Silence des ombres. There he played the roles of L’étranger and Médecin. In Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher he plays Frère Dominique.
Among the singers, who sing their role from behind the scenes, we recognize two Belgian sopranos. Ilse Eerens, who has performed at La Monnaie, among others, Amanda (Le Grand Macabre, Ligeti), Antigone (Œdipe, Enescu), Noémie (Cendrillon, Massenet), Oscar (Un ballo in maschera, Verdi), La seconde fille (Au Monde, Philippe Boesmans) and recently Celia (Lucio Silla, Mozart). She has the ethereal voice that one may expect from la Vierge. The Belgian soprano Tineke Van Ingelgem has already participated in two productions of Romeo Castellucci at La Monnaie, where she made her debut in Parsifal in 2011 and was in 2018 one of the three ladies in Die Zauberflöte. Now she gives her voice to sainte Marguerite. The other celestial voice, that of sainte Catherine, is sung by French mezzo-soprano Aude Extrémo, who makes her debut at La Monnaie and whose appearances on stage in 2019 include Anna in Les Troyens (Berlioz) at the Opéra de Paris, Fricka in Die Walküre (Wagner) in Bordeaux and the titel-rol in Carmen (Bizet) in Lille.
All the other characters are sung by two male voices: the tenor Jean-Noël Briend (debut at La Monnaie) interpretes une Voix, Porcus, Héraut I and le Clerc. His compatriot Jérôme Varnier, singsune Voix, Héraut II and un Paysan.