Odyssey Opera and Boston Modern Orchestra Project shone brightly Friday night at Jordan Hall with the world premiere of American composer Norman Dello Joio’s opera “The Trial at Rouen.” Maybe it was not a world premiere in the purest sense, as over 60 years separated the NBC Opera Theatre televised broadcast premiere and Friday’s live premiere. However, the evening’s most enduring image was timeless and timely: a lone woman surrounded on all sides by hostile, powerful men, all telling her to deny her own experiences. Why are the best ones so often one-off performances?
For the evening, founder-conductor Gil Rose united Odyssey Opera and BMOP, a collaboration of his two intrepid repertory-mining crews that has become a yearly event. As Rose told the Globe this summer, his original intent for the season had been to unearth “The Triumph of St. Joan,” Dello Joio’s revision of “Rouen,” but the music had been lost. To fill out the concert beyond the compact opera, the orchestra performed Dello Joio’s regal symphonic adaptation of an earlier Joan of Arc opera, which is also titled “The Triumph of St. Joan.”
There was no beating around the figurative bush in the symphony or opera; the music for the movement “The Maid” was passionate, and “The Warrior” fierce and tense. Yet enough harmonic complexity and dashes of unpredictability kept it out of the realm of paint by numbers. The rendition was grand except for one galloping section of “The Warrior,” where the orchestra seemed to not be so sure of its grip on the reins.
“The Trial at Rouen” is the second Joan of Arc-centered work in Odyssey’s season-long journey through her operatic presence. It zooms in on her final days, including her trial, interrogation, and execution, and it explores a complex, humanly relatable take on the legendary martyr. The unfussy libretto was written by Dello Joio, including some quotes from Joan’s trial, and the music ran along its contours easily. Until its final minutes, it’s more horror than hagiography, and in this semi-staged production, it wasn’t so hard to imagine one’s self in the young woman’s boots.
Soprano Heather Buck’s limpid voice lost some body in its high range, but she always carried Joan’s character convincingly, illustrating her transformation from frightened prisoner to saint ascendant. As the humble Father Julien, the mellow baritone Luke Scott’s lines were lilting and lyrical, almost always in a major key. In contrast, the music given to the gilded cross-wearing chief inquisitor Pierre Cauchon was perpetually static and stentorian, and baritone Stephen Powell drove every note in like a sledgehammer blow.
Though only semi-staged, with a few props and simple medieval costumes, the production made the most of what it had. One adroit move was to place the six-member jury chorus in the stage right balcony and the larger chorus of The People upstage left behind the orchestra during the slowly intensifying trial scene, with Buck trapped in the center boxed in by shadows. When Joan made her peace with her impending death, the lighting tinted orange, illuminating Buck as she sang her serene and rapturous (but lyrically cloying) final aria. A beatific expression was tattooed on her face as a barrage of orchestral noise flared up. She’d already left this world behind.
ODYSSEY OPERA AND BOSTON MODERN ORCHESTRA PROJECTzoe.firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.