Joan of Arc (Chicago Opera Theater): Flashy, shocking reworking of the legend

Joan of Arc (Chicago Opera Theater): Flashy, shocking reworking of the legend

Reviewed by Tom Lawler

Saint. Heretic. Brilliant warrior who saved a monarchy. Illiterate peasant who claimed divine guidance. Martyr.

Joan of Arc (AKA the Maid of Orleans) answers to all of these charges and since her real life exploits in the 1400s, she has been transformed into a Che Guevara-like revolutionary icon inspiring countless plays, books and movies – and a rarely produced opera by Verdi (La traviata, Rigoletto) now receiving its Chicago premiere by COT.

As conceived by director David Schweizer, Joan of Arc is a flashy, shocking reworking of the legend. Arriving at your seat with the houselights on, you notice a completely bare stage, save a security rope at the foot of it. It’s hard to imagine how this space will be transformed for such an epic, but suddenly a chorus of about 20 men in dark suits appear, and you understand you’re in for some surprises.

In this ingenious opening and framing device crafted by Schweizer, the men are joined by a chorus of women dressed liked missionaries and then a charismatic pastor and we realize we’re watching a play within a play. It’s actually a church group, and they’ve gathered to watch a screening of 1948’s Joan of Arc starring Ingrid Bergman. This seems to be one of their rituals.  The men and women work themselves into a frenzy watching this story unfold.

Showing a montage of scenes from the classic movie serves two purposes: it provides exposition on the Joan legend for those in the audience needing a refresher, and it also immediately introduces some eye-popping visuals to an evening bolstered by the shock and awe sounds emanating from the pit below by the New Millennium Orchestra. (It will also be revealed that the libretto for Joan of Arc is a sharp departure from the historical record, so this grounding of the Joan story at the start is also well-considered.)

The screening ends and the pastor casts his “Joan” (Suzan Hanson) and “Carlos VII, King of France” (Steven Harrison). The pastor (Michael Chioldi) himself plays “Giacoamo,” Joan’s father in Temistocle Solera’s origianal controversial libretto. In this version of the legend, Joan isn’t the bold teen who inspires an army to retake France for her king. Instead, she’s a conflicted virgin who fights her devotion to her faith and her sexual feelings toward King Carlo.

This is quite a change! Instead of being the unlikely heroine who inspires an army and saves a king, Joan is a pawn pulled in all directions by the king, her mixed feelings and her father who ultimately sees her as a heretic and betrays her. For this critic, these changes resulted in a passive heroine and a much less satisfying story that was difficult to follow.

Focusing instead on the director’s conceptual choices, you can’t help but smile at the modern industrial aesthetic used through Joan as this church group enacts this story. Joan is dressed like a modern warrior in army fatigues. Her father, the villager, wears a leather car coat and rises above the flock on a hydraulic lift. A candle shrine to the Virgin Mary unfolds like a Murphy Bed.  The church group reenacts a battle on a sea of red silk with what’s on hand – folding chairs. (Tactically, this conceit is also genius – producing opera is mind-bogglingly expensive. Any creative ideas that can cut these costs should be championed.)

Joan’s performances are also suitably huge, and Hanson, Harrison, Chioldi dazzle both in Verdi’s beautiful arias and in exquisite three-part harmonies with the backing of the terrific orchestra and chorus.

As the opera moves to its shocking conclusion, little things start adding up. An upside-down sword that Joan hoists above her head looks just like a cross. She’s fastened to a pyre and the image isn’t unlike a crucifix. She even asks her father why she’s “been forsaken.” As the church group gathers around her for her death and is then resurrected as a warrior in gleaming armor, it finally clicks. This is their Passion Play and Joan’s entire story is a parable about the importance of keeping their women pure and brutally fighting anyone who doesn’t share these beliefs.

If there any doubts about the danger of this group and their charismatic leader, they should be dispelled when we see what they’ve been hiding under their while silks. They are now inspired to do something terrible. Guess what: we’re the targets.

Running Time: 2 hours including one 20-minute intermission

At the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph

Composed by Giuseppe Verdi

Libretto by Temistocle Solera

Musical score performed by the New Millennium Orchestra of Chicago (Conductor: Francesco Milioto)

Directed by David Schweizer

Remaining performance: Sunday, Sep. 29 at 3pm

Buy tickets at chicagooperatheatre.org or call 312-704-8414

Production photo courtesy of Liz Lauren

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