Political symbol. Feminist role model. Mystic. Saint. Warrior.
Joan of Arc turns 600 this January, making her one of the oldest female heroines in Western history. The Maid of Orleans, a teenager who took to horseback to lead a weak and demoralized French army to defeat the English in seminal battles during the Hundred Years War, has symbolized strength and piety for centuries. She has been memorialized on stage, screen and canvas for her bold and heartbreaking tale.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra knows a thing or two about strong women, as the only major American symphony orchestra with a woman at its helm, music director Marin Alsop. It’s fitting then that this orchestra celebrates Joan’s Big 6-0-0 by tackling the saga of her life and death in Arthur Honegger’s 1935 “Joan of Arc at the Stake,” a rarely performed staged oratorio that blends choral music, opera and spoken word. Boasting four local choirs and leads that include acclaimed actors Caroline Dhavernas and Ronald Guttman, the BSO production will be staged in Baltimore on Thursday and Friday at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and travel to New York’s Carnegie Hall for a performance Saturday.
Alsop says the work defies all musical categories and tells the story of the heroine’s life in reverse. “The libretto is told in a very poetic way,” says Alsop, the BSO’s music director since 2007. “It begins with her in the afterlife, where she runs into Friar Dominic and asks, ‘How did this all happen to me?’ ”
Here, Honegger asks the question that has puzzled many for centuries.
How did a girl do this?
Joan’s trial and death, in a which a court convicted her of heresy, convicted her of wearing men’s clothes and burnt her alive at the stake, have made the myth of this teenager grow greater with every century. Indeed, it is hard to think of another woman who has been revered, prayed to, laughed at, scorned and parodied by every generation after her.
For centuries, Joan has been both fierce warrior and virginal maiden, elevated to piety by Renaissance painters or cheapened to freak by the satirist Voltaire. She has been embraced by cloistered nuns, ardent feminists and young girls that long to don the pixie cut.
“She comes across as a very innocent and complex human being,” says Alsop. “Was she this simple, uneducated country kid that happened into this or was she much more sophisticated and intelligent?”
Great figures in literature have taken a stab at Joan since the 15th century, when the medieval poet Christine de Pizan wrote “The Song of Joan of Arc.” A century later, William Shakespeare kills off Saint Joan early in “Henry the VI,” portraying her death as an obvious and just execution. Mark Twain, however, bites his usually irreverent tongue in his often-forgotten work “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.” George Bernard Shaw followed with his own account, accusing the Catholic saint of Protestantism in his 1923 play “Saint Joan.”
About the time the Italians invented opera, Joan of Arc appeared on stage, proving that audiences could never resist the drama of a horrific stake-burning scene. In 1825, Giuseppe Nicolini’s “Giovanna d’Arco” had its premiere in Turin. Five years later, Giovanni Pacini staged his opera by the same title at La Scala in Milan. Both Verdi and Tchaikovsky staged popular and memorable operas based on Joan’s death. In the 20th century, Leonard Bernstein wrote his choral piece “The Lark,” which he adapted from celebrated playwright Lillian Hellman’s take on Joan’s life.
Great visual artists, too, have memorialized her victory and death, portraying her first in drawings and illuminated manuscripts in the 16th century. In 1620, Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens painted her saintly visage in “Joan of Arc at Prayer” in the Baroque style. Images of her dominate Paris and greater France, where she is a national heroine, from the Pantheon to Emmanuel Fremiet’s bronze statute of her riding victoriously at the Place des Pyramides on Rue di Rivoli.
American cities, too, have discovered the appeal of placing this warrior on horseback in parks and squares. In Philadelphia, a copy of Fremiet’s Joan stands in Fairmount Park. In New York, Anna Hyatt Huntington’s Joan in Manhattan’s Riverside Park became the city’s first statue dedicated to a historical woman. Washington has its own Joan, a bronze copy of Paul Dubois’s statue of a defiant Joan on horseback, in Meridian Hill Park.
She is also a political icon, beloved by both ends of the vast spectrum.
“The flexibility of what we put onto Joan of Arc is amazing,” says Alsop. “She’s been adopted by the extreme right . . . in France, but she’s also referenced by left-wing belief systems.”
But for all her prominence in the higher arts and politics, popular culture also embraced the warrior saint, putting slightly sexual twists on her virginal image. Ingrid Bergman and Leelee Sobieski bring Joan to life on the silver and small screens, respectively, and the saint even gets an awkward minute in the 1989 cult hit “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Fashion, too, embraced Joan as the original inventor of calvary chic when in 1988, United Colors of Benetton highlighted her androgynous appeal, juxtaposing a model dressed as Marilyn Monroe next to the boyish, militaristic Joan holding her sword.
Musicians place Joan on a pedestal, with British indie rock band the Smiths claiming, “I know how Joan of Arc felt as the flames rose to her Roman nose and her Walkman started to melt.” Elton John shamelessly asked, “Did Anybody Sleep with Joan of Arc?” and one-hit wonder Tal Bachman rates her on par with Cleopatra and Aphrodite in the ’90s romcom standard “She’s so High.”
“There’s such a mystery to how she existed, how she came about. How could a 17-year-old girl lead like this? There aren’t that many women heroines in our history books. And she didn’t want to be under the authority of anyone. She wanted to be her own person,” says Alsop.
So independent she belongs to everyone.
8 p.m, Thursday and Friday, at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
Marin Alsop, conductor, with Caroline Dhavernas as Joan of Arc. $28-$61. 1212 Cathedral St., Baltimore, www.bsomusic.org. 410-783-8000.