The ‘Second Coming’ of The Maid of Orleans


This is only the second time in its entire history that the Bolshoi has turned its attention to The Maid of Orleans! The opera was first heard at the Bolshoi on 28 April 1990 — in a production marking the 150th anniversary of Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky’s birth. This monumental, decoratively-static staging (producer Boris Pokrovsky, conductor Alexander Lazarev, designer Valery Leventhal) was a significant event in the Theatre’s life. And presented just over one hundred years after The Maid of Orleans had been coмposed, it was to remain the Bolshoi’s only production of the work. In this, however, the Bolshoi is not alone: The Maid of Orleans Tchaikovsky’s most monumental opera is in general rarely performed.

Today, 25 years’ on, and in anticipation of the 175th anniversary of the composer’s birth, the Bolshoi is to present a concert performance of the opera. And this has a symbolical and even ‘programmatic’ significance: the Bolshoi’s new Music Director and Conductor in Chief, Tugan Sokhiev, has chosen the large-scale and rarely staged The Maid for his debut performance at the Theatre.

In Mr. Sokhiev’s own words he was guided in his choice by the fact that this was an opera by Tchaikovsky, whose music has always been closely associated with creative life at the Bolshoi. In addition to which it was a work which would enable the Company to show off its strengths and creative aspirations.

The Maestro had long dreamed of an encounter with The Maid. And he became totally absorbed in the search for his own approach to understanding this opera. One should remember, he says, that when composing The Maid Tchaikovsky was seeking for a style, musical language of his own (in the is opera one even hears ‘echoes’ of the future Iolanta). The composer wrote the is opera in separate fragments, rather than straight off, scene by scene, as inspiration took him. The process of assimilating the material was akin to that of an investigative study. Why did Tchaikovsky write in this particular order? What did he focus on in each scene? What was it that moved him at a particular moment? The Maestro sees one of his most important goals as being to demonstrate the ongoing development of narrative, musical dramaturgy, and the heroine’s psychological development, apart from his great talent as composer Tchaikovsky, after all, was also a fine dramatist.

Under Tugan Sokhiev’s guidance, the Bolshoi Theatre soloists, Young Artists Opera Programme soloists, as well as the Theatre’s guest artists, are getting to grips with the subtleties of Tchaikovsky’s musical text.

The concert performances of The Maid of Orleans are to take place on 26 and 28 September.

In 1878, having completed his chamber („lyrical scenes”) Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky set to work virtually at once on a real ‘grand opera’ in the French style — with huge chorus scenes, a ballet, effective ensembles, lyrical duets and such grandiose ‘details’ of plot as military battles and majestic processions.

Ever since he was a child the composer had been moved by the figure of the national heroine of France, a simple peasant girl who had led an army into battle against the enemy (at the age of six he had written a verse in her honour). He was so taken with the story that he decided to write the libretto for his opera himself. Before doing so, however, he reread „an entire small library of books about Joan of Arc”. This library comprised a biography of Jeanne d’Arc by Henri Wallon, Jules Michelet’s History of France, Jules Barbier’s play Jeanne d’Arc and Auguste Mermet’s libretto for his opera of the same name („I thought the scenario of this opera was very bad, but there are 2-3 effective scenes which, perhaps, I may make use of”). But of course his thoughts were first and foremost concentrated on Friedrich Schiller’s Die Jungfrau von Orleans (in Zhukovsky’s translation).

Tchaikovsky cut the text of the play, composed new stanzas and, on the basis of the Schiller tragedy, created his own version of The Maid of Orleans, with an emphasized love line between Joan and the Burgundian knight Lionel and a historically accurate — as opposed to the Schiller finale — ending (with Schiller the heroine dies in battle, with Tchaikovsky, in line with the historical facts, she is burnt at the stake). Work proceeded apace and in less than three months — by February 1879 — the opera was completed in draft form, and by August the orchestration was ready.

The composer kept a careful eye on preparations for the première at the Mariinsky Theatre. He was very pleased with the musical part (he was to dedicate the opera to its first conductor — Eduard Napravnik) but was indignant at the management’s offhand attitude to the production itself („All the sets and costumes are to be made up from scraps”). The first night took place on 13 February 1881. The opera got a rousing reception from the public. The critics, however, were extremely disapproving. And for all its success and the full houses, The Maid was soon dropped: it was never to become a staple repertoire item* .

Large-scale and very complex, it is far from easy to find adequate dramatic form for this opera (a concert performance, therefore, is an attractive alternative!) and it is very demanding of the singers, particularly of the soloists performing the role of Joan. The title role is in fact written for two voices simultaneously: Joan’s voice has to be able to soar up effortlessly to the soprano top notes, while at the same time possessing the strength, depth and dramatic tension typical of a mezzo-soprano.

* Having said which, it was never to be totally neglected. There were two famous productions: at the Leningrad Kirov Theatre of Opera and Ballet (today the Mariinsky) 1945 and at the Bayerische Staatsoper Munich (1989). It has also been produced by opera companies in, among other countries, Italy (Perugia, Turin, Cagliari), Sweden (Stockholm) and the States (Washington, San Francisco).