Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

An angry and bitter Joan touched with the absurd
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The Independent Culture

There is something mad about Honegger's oratorio Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher, which is the opening musical event of this year's Edinburgh Festival in the Usher Hall.

There is something mad about Honegger's oratorio Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher, which is the opening musical event of this year's Edinburgh Festival in the Usher Hall.

The librettist was an aged Paul Claudel (his immense play, Le soulier de Satin, is also being performed this year). You might expect, therefore, that the religious aspect of the Joan of Arc story would come to the fore.

The surprise is to encounter its anger, bitterness and wild ridicule. The heroine is condemned by a bunch of corrupt card-players, led by a pig. In committing her to the flames, the judges consult a group of donkeys and sheep. Is this what Claudel thought of the France of the 1930s? It's a shout against fools, self-servers, materialists, lying politicians and dupes. His rancid satire is echoed by Honegger with a growling and snorting orchestral sound that is sometimes smeared with wobbly saxophones and a whooping ondes martenot.

The children's choir and parodied folksongs join the pigs and sheep in the madhouse. This composer can suggest baroque counterpoint or reproduce a moment of disingenuous sweetness, without losing control of the satire. The piece is a staggering tour de force.

Almost uniquely in a work of this type, the leading parts are spoken. This brought into service a team of first-rate actors, whose director, Olivier Py, clearly saw it as a kind of commedia dell'arte. The tone was set by Jeanne Balibar as Joan. She delivered this odd part - wild, confused, puerile - in a hectic scream, pointing to the ceiling with both hands, swinging her arms like a windmill, prodding and slashing and bobbing on to her toes. This virtuoso performance was also reflected by the singers, especially the tenor Paul Agnew as Joan's prosecutor, both cruel and clownish. The other leading actor, Philippe Girard as Brother Dominic, was husky, a bit fazed in spite of his cool dignity.

The work was spaciously conducted by Kwamé Ryan, though the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Festival Chorus had not really got it under their skin. The other small vocal parts were cast at strength: Lisa Milne as a celestial St Margaret, Jane Irwin a grave St Catherine, and a colourful Virgin, sung by Sarah Fox.

The effect is unsettling. There was no doubt about the bitter rage of the poet and composer, but there was also a Joycean vein of absurdity.

As a festival opener, it is a perfect choice - a truly major rarity. It made you shudder and shift uneasily in your seat; but it won't be forgotten in a hurry.



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