Music and Performance Art Reviews : ‘Joan of Arc at the Stake’ at UCLA’s Royce Hall
At a time of the year when many other collegiate musical organizations are offering pops concerts and academic samplers, William Hatcher and the massed UCLA choral forces turned to Honegger’s heady, gaudy, hyper-dramatic oratorio, “Joan of Arc at the Stake.”
In any medium, Honegger’s style was basically vocal, and the UCLA production Friday evening at Royce Hall didn’t lack for voices--11 soloists, headed by actress Fionnula Flanagan in the title role, and 250 in the combined choirs of the UCLA Choral Union, accompanied by the University Orchestra.
For the most part, the Bruin effort matched quantity with quality. The big chorus sang the uncredited translation clearly and fluently, needing the numbers to augment a fundamentally light sound. The orchestra proved less suave and more explosive, alert to Hatcher’s guidance in a well-paced reading.
The most troubling elements of the performance were physical balances, and an ambivalent focus, inherited from Honegger and the librettist Paul Claudel. Flanagan and Norman Welsh (Brother Dominic) were amplified, and even so, Flanagan’s raptured voice disappeared in the final, radiantly overwhelming climax.
The other vocal soloists were not so aided, but John Hall and Timothy Mussard delivered their multifarious spoken parts authoritatively. Bass Jeff Calof and tenor Gualtiero Negrini offered ringing tone and expressive zeal; despite Negrini’s stentorian efforts and the high tessitura, “My Name Is Porcus” also was largely buried in the potent mix.
Soprano Mary Rawcliffe and mezzo Sarah Bloxham intoned Joan’s recurring heavenly voices smoothly, and soprano Kari Windingstad let the exhortations of the Virgin and Hope blossom with amplitude and grace. Agnieszka Lejman, stepping forward from the chorus, actually had the most grateful solo opportunities as the Youth, and made much of them with clarity and sweetness.
Excepting Lejman, the soloists were costumed, and reinforced their extroverted delivery with some rudimentary gestures. Some basic lighting changes--to red for the flames, etc.--also indicated a reluctance to rely solely on word and music for drama in this oratorio that would be opera.
In context, those efforts seemed trivializing intrusions. Flanagan--looking more like a frizzy-haired Peter Pan than the Maid of Lorraine--and Welsh put humor, wonder, anger and ecstasy in their wide-ranging readings, and had no need of minor stagecraft.