Odyssey Opera warms up for Joan of Arc-themed season
To Gil Rose’s disappointment, there seem to be no operas in German on the subject of Joan of Arc.
“I cast around, believe me,” said Rose, a self-described “repertoire wonk” and the artistic and general director of Odyssey Opera. “Then I would have had an opera about the same subject in Russian, German, English, French, and Italian.”
German opera or no German opera, Odyssey Opera’s 2017-18 season is indeed remarkable from a repertoire standpoint: Four of five operas feature Joan of Arc at the center; the fifth is a staged production of Donizetti’s “L’assedio di Calais,” which takes place earlier in the Hundred Years’ War.
Meanwhile the season promises many other things that have become company calling cards: grand opera in concert, rarely performed titles, and excellent singers. It all begins on Saturday, with a Jordan Hall concert performance of Tchaikovsky’s three-hour, four-act epic “The Maid of Orléans”
It’s a bold programming choice — perhaps fitting for a conductor who has charted a unique path in Boston’s music scene. Rose is well known for his prolific output with Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which he founded in 1996. He also served as artistic director of Opera Boston. “It took me a long time to break out of the contemporary repertoire,” he said in reference to BMOP. “People get pigeonholed in all sorts of ways, and opera got me out of it.”
Odyssey’s concert performance of Norman Dello Joio’s “The Trial at Rouen” will be the first performance of the opera for a live audience. The opera was televised in 1956, then expanded into a longer work, “The Triumph of Saint Joan,” which had a successful 1959 premiere at New York City Opera.
In an anecdote that reveals just how far Rose will go to unearth little-known musical gems, the conductor explained that he’d aspired to perform that expanded work, but the parts had been lost. He enlisted the help of WCRB Boston radio station manager Tony Rudel, whose father was general director of New York City Opera when the opera premiered. “He helped me identify who the conductor was,” said Rose. “We tried to track him down because he was remembered to be very methodical about keeping scores and parts.” Unfortunately, the trail ended when Rose could not access the Long Island house of that conductor, the late Herbert Grossman.
While four productions all center on the famed visionary teenage martyr, the plots are wildly different. Arthur Honegger’s “Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher” is a spooky, mystic oratorio, with a non-singing actor portraying Joan herself. “The Trial at Rouen” zooms in on Joan’s surroundings and internal conflict at the moment of her rigged interrogation and sentencing.
“There’s this beautiful humanity to her,” said soprano Heather Buck, who will sing the role of Joan in the Dello Joio opera. “There’s a fair amount of her examining herself and questioning, are my voices gone? Have they abandoned me?”
Both “Giovanna d’Arco,” which will be staged at the Huntington Avenue Theatre, and “The Maid of Orléans” portray Joan as a woman in love in addition to a divinely inspired leader. “Very feminine and romantic” was Maine soprano Kate Aldrich’s first impression of Joan in “The Maid of Orléans.” Near the beginning of Act 2, Joan is lovestruck at first sight when the Burgundian knight Lionel removes his helmet after fighting her, and he is ultimately her undoing when the two are captured in a private moment. “There’s definitely the political rallying . . . but it’s less of a grand heroine who sort of saves the day,” said Aldrich.
Can such daring programming succeed in the face of the oft-repeated assertion that Boston is not an opera town? “This town has got so much opera around of all ilks, usually surviving on a shoestring. It’s a much more kaleidoscopic opera world here,” Rose said. “One of the things that makes what I do possible is both that there are audiences for eclectic ideas and the musicians and singers to pull it off.”
“We’ll see if this one captivates people,” Rose added. “I mean, you can only watch her burning at the stake so many times. But they’re very different operas and they treat the subject quite differently.”
Buck added her perspective: “I look at the breadth of this particular season and think we have all different facets of a tumultuous time in history, centering on one particular woman who has become a legend,” she said. “Immersing in a subject that is giving new delights at every turn. I feel that is what Odyssey has been since the beginning.”
At Jordan Hall, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. www.odysseyopera.org