Hearing Voices: Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher at La Monnaie – De Munt

Honegger – Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher

Jeanne d’Arc – Audrey Bonnet
Frère Dominique – Sébastien Dutrieux
La Vierge – Ilse Eerens
Marguerite – Tineke Van Ingelgem
Catherine – Aude Extrémo
Une voix / Porcus / Héraut I /  Le clerc – Jean-Noël Briend
Une voix / Héraut II / Un paysan – Jérôme Varnier
1er Récitant (Héraut III, L’Âne, Bedford, Jean de Luxembourg, Un autre paysan) – Louka Petit-Taborelli
2e Récitant (L’Appariteur, Regnault de Chartres, Guillaume de Flavy, Perrot, Un prêtre) – Geoffrey Boissy
Soprano solo – Gwendoline Blondeel
Une voix d’enfant – Alice Hermand

Kinder- en Jeugdkoor & Kooracademie van de Munt, Chœurs de la Monnaie, Symfonieorkest van de Munt / Ono Kazushi.
Stage director – Romeo Castellucci.

La Monnaie – De Munt, Brussels, Belgium.  Sunday, November 10th, 2019.

Performances of Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher are rare enough but staged performances are even rarer.  For this new staging, co-produced with the Opéra de Lyon, where it was first seen in 2017, La Monnaie – De Munt engaged Romeo Castellucci, a frequent visitor to the house and one of the most visually creative directors out there today.  Honegger’s oratorio is an interesting work, containing as it does extended spoken passages and multiple sung roles, as well as a significant choral component.  The musical language can have a tendency to post-romantic soupiness, although the presence of the whooping ondes Martenot gives the orchestral texture a strangeness that seems all of a piece with Jeanne’s visions.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Castellucci takes an interesting angle to the narrative.  As the curtain rises, we see children in a school classroom, rows of desks, perhaps themselves learning about the life of Jeanne d’Arc.  For the next fifteen or so minutes, before the music starts, we see a cleaner move the tables and chairs into the corridor, clearing the room of any furniture into an adjoining corridor, including removing the chalkboard.  This person then appears to transform into Jeanne herself, locking herself into the classroom while she acts out the events in the plot.  The chorus is placed on the highest balconies while Frère Dominique, perhaps the school principal, talks to Jeanne through the wall separating the corridor from the classroom.  Within this space, actor Audrey Bonnet’s Jeanne gives us an image of disintegration, of a woman succumbing to visions and mental collapse.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Bonnet gives us a performance of naked vulnerability, shedding her clothes and her sanity as she becomes Jeanne.  Never afraid to push her voice or her body to its limits, her strength is inspirational, desperate and painful to watch.  Castellucci’s staging is remarkable for its fluidity, offering constantly changing vistas as he takes us deep into the woman’s psyche.  It makes for an interesting meditation on the power of faith and mental illness, transforming what can be a static work into a visceral exploration of the boundaries of the imagined and the real.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Of course, having the choruses placed in balconies reinforced this impression of sharing in a common ritual, the choral sound enveloping the audience in an all-encompassing glow.  This feeling of displacement was heightened by the fact that we also didn’t see who was speaking or singing, other than Jeanne or Dominique, we heard disembodied voices coming from the ether, without any sense of whether these were real or imagined – reinforcing precisely that sense of making us question our own reality.  Castellucci gives us an evening that places Jeanne’s vulnerability front and centre, yet never claims to have all the answers.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Musically, this was an extremely strong performance, once again exemplifying the outstanding musical qualities of the house.  The orchestra was on superb form for their former chief, Ono Kazushi.  Ono brought out the full technicolour inventiveness of Honegger’s orchestration – from glinting winds to soft-grained strings and radiant brass.  He made as much of the frequent silences as the big climaxes, capped by the eerie ondes Martenot.  He paced the work with unhurried, long-phrased vision.  The chorus was also luminous, filling the room in a burst of sound with ensemble absolutely watertight.  Very occasionally, the sopranos had some disagreements on pitching, but tone was always firm and well-blended.   The well-trained children’s chorus, impressively accurate in tuning, added am angelic halo to the sound.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

The vast majority of the dramatic impetus of the work is carried by the actors, and Bonnet certainly gave us a performance of uninhibited fearlessness.  She gave us so much of herself, surrendering completely to Castellucci’s vision.  Sébastien Dutrieux was an earnest, heartfelt Dominque, finding strength in his entreaties to Jeanne.  In the singing cast, Ilse Eerens was a glowing presence with her attractive, crystalline soprano.  Aude Extrémo’s mahogany mezzo was luxury casting as Catherine, the piquant warmth of tone making its presence felt.  Jean-Noël Briend brought a sappy, characterful tenor to his roles, while Jérôme Varnier sang in a warm, attractive bass with good resonance.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

This Jeanne d’Arc made for a visually fascinating afternoon in the theatre.  Castellucci gives us a stimulating reflection on the nature of faith and questions the relation between faith and mental illness.  This is a show that asks much but does not give all the answers, inviting its viewers to question reality for themselves.  Musically, it was first-class with the house forces once again demonstrating the outstanding quality of this address.  It was dominated by a commanding account of the title role from an actress who gave us so totally of herself.

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