Arts & Leisure

Opera Review: OCM’s ‘Maid of Orleans’

NO DETAILS WERE spared for the Opera Company of Middlebury’s production of “The Maid of Orleans.” Independent photo/Steve James

Why is it called “grand opera”? Opera Company of Middlebury mastered the genre in last week’s production of Tchaikovsky’s “Maid of Orleans,” with spectacle, soaring melodies and powerhouse voices. From the moment the house lights dimmed (and how we have all missed the experience of live performances) the audience was swept along in the story of the girl who led an army in order to save her country, and who was burned at the stake as a witch. Doug Anderson and the OCM team have brought together a cast of singing actors, brilliantly costumed by Debbie Anderson, with a 23-piece orchestra conducted by Michael Sakir for their 18th production at the Middlebury Town Hall Theater.

“It reminds me of Phantom of the Opera, but with better songs,” I heard one audience member remark during intermission. Although not frequently performed, “Maid of Orleans” has it all: beatific visions, angels, combat scenes, an inquisition, forbidden love, and grand spectacle. The transformation from young country girl to political leader is sparked by the entry of suffering refugees. These are turbulent times, like our own, and OCM’s production evoked that sense of wonder and awe when a story comes to life. The pace speeds up near the end, when the mob calls for Joan’s immolation in the name of religion, and she is received into heaven by the angels who had appeared to her at the beginning. Mezzo Annie Rosen inhabited the role of Joan, with a creamy voice able to command an army or to express tenderness or doubt. She had so many of Tchaikovsky’s big tunes, as well as moments of doubt and despair, and expressed nuances of her character, especially evident in the love duet with the knight Lionel, played by baritone Paul La Rosa. It was a joy in that theatre to experience the glorious sweep of the story.

A contrasting scene showed King Charles VII paralyzed by inaction as his country is invaded, played brilliantly by tenor James Flora in his eighth role for OCM. The love scenes with Agnes (soprano Meredith Lustig) were a joy to witness, and gave a fuller picture of a king as a person as well as a political leader. When the plot accelerates in the final act and the fickle mob pronounces Joan a witch and then expresses remorse at her execution, the music continues strong and powerful. The energy never flagged on opening night, a testament to the high caliber of singers and players.

The skilled orchestra, many of whom are familiar faces to Vermont audiences, approached this massive score with stamina and lyricism under the direction of Maestro Sakir. Solos by clarinetist Dan Liptak and flutist Hilary Goldblatt were lovely moments, as were the string section under concertmaster William Tortolano. They seemed to play nonstop, expressing all the colors of the musical score.

Anderson, artistic director of OCM, and his team have designed a production that moved the story along and marshaled the grandeur one expects from grand opera, with a sense of intimacy in a small theatre. Reading the supertitles and hearing the music, I forgot that I was listening to Russian.

Where would we be without plots that express our continuing obsession with female chastity? Joan’s demise is fueled by her oath to eschew human love and to give herself to God. When she succumbs to her passion for the enemy soldier, her choice leads to her destruction. We may weep for her fate, but the plot also raises the question of justice and the continuing uncertainty about woman’s power. If the acting had not been so sensitive, and the production mere spectacle, I may not have considered these themes as I exited the theatre to enjoy the warm autumn evening

While “Maid of Orleans” is not one of the top Tchaikovsky operas, (“Eugene Onegin” comes to mind), I am grateful to our opera company here in Vermont for the chance to be swept away by live performance and by a story while, not new to me, was masterfully told. I was sorry when it ended.

Bravo to the cast and production team of Opera Company of Middlebury for another triumph.

Linda Radtke is a singer and host of the VPR Choral Hour.

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