In The Metropolitan Museum of Art's galleries of 19th-century European paintings is a riveting depiction of a sturdy peasant girl with piercing blue eyes, transfixed in a wooded cottage garden. Behind her, half visible among the branches, Saints Margaret and Catherine and the archangel Saint Michael hover mystically as they exhort her to action. The artist is Jules Bastien-Lepage, and his Joan of Arc presents a memorable image of France's national heroine at the moment of her divine inspiration. Across town, on Riverside Drive at West 93rd Street, is a portrayal of another side of the Maid of Or- leans: Anna Hyatt Huntington's masterly equestrian bronze Joan of Arc, which shows her at the zenith of her valor, in knightly armor with sword held high to receive the blessing of Providence.
Bastien-Lepage chose his subject at a time when France was still recovering from the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War (1870) and the ensuing chaos of the 1871 Paris Commune, and his painting struck a deeply nationalist chord. Significantly, Huntington's Riverside Drive stat- ue was unveiled in 1915, two years before America joined France and England against Germany in the "war to end all wars." The statue was, ironically, New York's first public monument to a historic (rather than mythical or allegorical) wom- an, yet its unveiling took place fully five years before the 19th Amendment finally granted American women their hard- earned right to vote.
The valiant figure of Joan of Arc often appealed to dramatists in times of political turmoil or war, and she would continue to represent different ideas to different ages. In William Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part One, of 1590 (two years after the English navy defeated the Spanish Armada), Joan la Pucelle (or "harlot") is the villain in England's 15th-century war with its traditional enemy, France. In the wake of the French Revolution, the German dramatist and philosopher Friedrich Schiller used Joan as the lens through which to examine redemption of a guilt-ridden soul through valor in his tragedy Die Jungfrau von Orleans (1801), which takes liberties with history, having her fall in love, break out of prison, and die upon the battlefield. During Italy's heady Risorgimento ("resurgence," the movement that led toward Italian unification under King Victor Emanuel II in 1861) she inspired a number of opera composers even before Giuseppe Verdi set his musical sights on her in his rousing Giovanna d'Arco (1845), which bears numerous points of similarity with Schiller's characterization. To the north decades later, Schiller's drama was among several sources for Tchaikovsky's French-style grand opera, Orleanskaya Dyeva, premiered at St. Petersburg in 1881.
The 1923 Broadway premiere of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan took place three years after Joan of Arc's canonization, and its difficult title role delineates a genuinely tragic figure struggling between the forces of the Church and the Law. Although Shaw had closely studied all existing docu- ments concerning the historic Joan and her trial, T.S. Eliot complained that "instead of the saint or the strumpet of the legends to which [Shaw] objects, he has turned her into a great middle-class reformer."
The political darkness that increasingly engulfed mid-1930s Europe suffuses the opening of Arthur Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au Boucher, a score whose rich eclecticism ranges from the choral and instrumental sweep of late- and post-Romanticism to the folk-like simplicity of a shepherd's pipe, seasoned with eerie waverings of the ondes Martinot. Collaborating in 1935 with the symbolist poet, dramatist, and diplomat Paul Claudel, the Franco-Swiss composer regarded Joan of Arc as the fulcrum of a debate over contemporary politics spinning out of control. Instead of a conventional opera, Claudel and Honegger fashioned a dramatic oratorio for chorus, singers, and actors, creating the title role for the often controversial Russian-born dancer and actress Ida Rubinstein, who in 1911 had performed the title role of Debussy's Le Martyre de Saint S_bastien, prompting the Archbishop of Paris to forbid Catholics from attending the spectacle of a male saint portrayed by a female Jew.
Most important, instead of recounting the familiar story with all its bellicose activity, Claudel and Honegger chose a more introspective path, relating the events that led to Joan's martyrdom through flashbacks at the moment when she has been brought to the stake for execution. "She sees her whole life streaming in front of her, narrated by Brother Dominique, who appears as in a dream," observes Cêäme de Bellescize, the French playwright and stage director who initially created this production for the 2012 Saito Kinen Festival in Japan, and who recently remounted it in Paris and Toulouse.
"Joan," De Bellescize says, "is a French political icon, a symbol of liberty and hero- ism. But she is also a symbol of passion for war. Writing during a period of high nation- alistic tensions, Claudel and Honegger ridicule Joan's political and military actions.
"Throughout the oratorio," he continues, "their mockery of politics corresponds to a child's viewpoint, a child who sees a military conflict as a card game, and a political trial as a circus full of clowns and beasts. Despite the work's dramatic tone this childlike spirit lets the story waver be- tween cool naÇvet_ and ludicrous humor. Thus, Claudel and Honegger do not pro-pose a historical or political point of view. Instead they present Joan as a symbol of childhood and spring, a symbol of hope."
New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert has championed productions that blend the Orchestra's enormous musical and technical capacity with theatrical flourishes, essentially creating a new genre of symphonic opera. The Orchestra's audiences cannot help but recall how those explorations have resulted in an array of memorable programs : among them Lonny Price's production of Sweeney Todd (2014), and director/designer Doug Fitch's provocative stagings of Ligeti's opera Le Grand Macabre (2010) and Janšček's The Cunning Little Vixen (2011). Honeg- ger's score suited Gilbert's criteria for this treatment: "There is a suggestive, atmospheric quality to the textures Honegger creates, but also a biting, edgy side that makes his music particularly suited to this highly dramatic story."
Gilbert learned of De Bellescize's inventive approach to the piece from Seiji Ozawa, who oversaw its World Premiere in Japan, and feels that De Bellescize's creativity rejuvenates the familiar themes associated with Joan of Arc. He hails the manner in which "Cêäme has made the story timeless, using this specific, historic situation to tell a more universal truth." For the conductor, the oratorio "not only reflects the highly fraught time of its creation," but, seen against the backdrop of the religious and political controversies affecting our own era, "it reminds us that today's problems are hardly new."
"From the opening measures, Jeanne d'Arc au Boucher is gripping," Gilbert adds. "Both dramatically and musically, it draws you into its world, and compels you to reflect upon the deeper meaning of its characters and its themes. I believe that those who are not familiar with the work will come out of the performance surprised by how completely it has swept them along with it. One can hope that its tran- scendental message of love can serve as a reminder of the lasting humanist values that we must never lose sight of in today's strife-torn world."
Barrymore Laurence scherer, author of the award- winning A History of American Classical Music (sourcebooks, 2007), is a music and fine art critic for The Wall Street Journal and a contributing editor of The Magazine Antiques.