The Maid of Orleans, Carnegie Hall, New York
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Tchaikovsky’s Orleanskaya deva is better known hereabouts, if known at all, as The Maid of Orleans. First staged in St Petersburg in 1881, it represents a bizarre yet wondrous mishmash – part grand opera in the old Parisian tradition, part blood-and-guts melodrama predicated on Russian romance, part showpiece for a superhuman mezzo-soprano.
Based loosely on Schiller’s tragedy, it recounts the plight of Joan of Arc with passionate poetry counterbalanced by stirring piety. In the process it manages to interpolate an incongruous love story.
Few companies outside Russia attempt this precarious challenge. The US premiere occurred only in 1976 – amid the gambling casinos of Reno, Nevada, of all places. The mighty Met has never shown interest. But the not-so-mighty Collegiate Chorale proved on Thursday that the work can be rousing, even touching, if performed urgently and cast generously.
The raison d’être for this excursion was Dolora Zajick, a low-voiced prima-donna who has long championed the title role. She sings it with total dedication, unfazed by any range or dynamic extremes. She paints in primary colours, deals nonchalantly with vocal thunder, respects the sporadic contrast of lyrical calm, brings down the house – probably nearby houses too – with Joan’s farewell to the forests (the one hit tune in the score). She found a superb ally in Daniele Callegari, an opera expert who assumed the baton when Robert Bass, the chorus specialist normally in charge, took ill. The Milanese maestro, who previously led this opera in Wexford, commands a febrile temperament and a dazzling technique. The Chorale and Orchestra of St Luke’s responded accordingly.
The fine supporting ensemble included Oleg Kulko (heroic as Charles VII), Igor Tarasov (ardent as the lovelorn Lionel), Andrey Antonov (crusty as Joan’s father) and Valerian Ruminski (powerful as the Archbishop). Replacing the originally announced Carol Vaness, Karen Slack applied a radiant spinto soprano to the relatively thankless duties of Àgnes Sorel. Concert opera should always be like this. ★★★★★
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