28 July 2015

Joan of Arc at the Stake

Marion Cotillard and Eric Génovèse in Joan of Arc at the Stake. Photo: Patrick Berger

Marion Cotillard often portrays characters who are a mix of fragility and strength. Last month, I was fortunate to see her play one of these roles when she appeared with the New York Philharmonic in Arthur Honegger’s oratorio Joan of Arc at the Stake. Composed in 1935 with a libretto by Paul Claudel, the piece was performed in French by Cotillard (in one of the few speaking parts) along with the New York Choral Artists and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.

Joan of Arc at the Stake opens with a dramatic prologue sung by the chorus about darkness having fallen on France. Added in 1943, it served to establish the situation of the country during Joan of Arc's life while simultaneously condemning the Nazi-occupation of France.

A seemingly dazed Joan appears. Having been found guilty of heresy, she is about to be burned at the stake. She conjures up an imaginary sympathetic friar, Brother Dominic, who has with him a book that tells the story of Joan's life. He reads to her, and we see flashbacks of Joan’s life, starting with her trial, which is represented as some sort of surreal circus with a jury comprised of sheep and a pig for a judge. When Joan asks Brother Dominic why she’s been condemned, he explains that she was a pawn in a card game, which is then shown being played by foolish royals. Joan recalls hearing the voices of her beloved St. Catherine and St. Marguerite, how she helped the King to claim his throne, and of happy moments during her childhood in Lorraine. Brother Dominic leaves, and Joan goes to her death with the Virgin Mary and a choir of angels watching over her.

While some of the farcical scenes like the animal trial were entertaining (if not a bit jarring), the piece was at its strongest when focused on Joan, who was portrayed perfectly by Cotillard. In one memorable scene, Joan shouts out the words that were thrown at her by her accusers—heretic, sorceress, apostate—as they are repeated back to her by the chorus. And the scenes between her and Brother Dominic, played by the excellent Eric Génovèse, were poignant and deeply moving. 

At times defiant, at other times scared, Cotillard's Joan was mesmerizing to watch. Often offering up childlike responses, she reminded the audience that while she may have led troops into battle, Joan of Arc was, after all, a young girl.

If you missed the New York performances, there's a DVD of an earlier production with Cotillard that can be purchased here.

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