'Joan of Arc at the Stake': Theater Review

Chris Lee
Marion Cotillard in 'Joan of Arc at the Stake'
The luminous Cotillard is magnificent in this imaginatively staged and gorgeously performed presentation of the rarely seen 1935 musical piece

Oscar winner Marion Cotillard plays the title role in the New York Philharmonic's staged production of Arthur Honegger's classic French oratorio.

The sheer luminosity of Marion Cotillard's face nearly overwhelms the beautiful music of Joan of Arc at the Stake, Arthur Honegger's 1935 oratorio being presented for an all-too-limited run by the New York Philharmonic. Playing the French peasant girl whose martyrdom eventually led to her beatification, the Oscar-winning actress is the emotional anchor of an imaginatively staged production that brings the musical piece to thrilling life.

Clad in a simple white dress, Cotillard makes her entrance from the rear of the stage, walking down to the front and across the length of it before assuming her position on an elevated platform containing a tall wooden stake. The libretto by French poet Paul Claudel depicts Joan preparing for her imminent immolation in the company of a kindly monk, Brother Dominique (Eric Genovese), recalling in flashbacks the circumstances that brought about her dire fate.

Despite its serious themes — the piece begins dramatically with the sung words "Darkness! Darkness!" from the Book of Genesis, part of a prologue added in 1944 reflecting the German occupation of France — the production staged by Come de Bellescize has an often antic, surreal tone enhanced by Colombe Lauriot Prevost's imaginative costumes. Joan's trial is populated by animals, with a bright pink pig serving as the judge and a flock of sheep as the jurors. Other characters include a tiger, a fox and a donkey, with the latter's braying conveyed by the eerie ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument rarely heard these days. When Joan asks Dominique, "How did this all happen to me?" he replies, "It was a game of cards that decided your fate," and we indeed see human representations of royal playing cards.

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Not all of this entirely works, and there are sections of the oratorio that will prove baffling to American audiences not fully versed in the mythology. But the piece, which combines spoken word (Cotillard, along with several of the other performers, recites her dialogue in French, with English supertitles), orchestral music and choral passages, has an intense cumulative power. Honegger's music reflects myriad influences and is beautifully performed by the orchestra under the dynamic conducting of Alan Gilbert, with invaluable contributions by the New York Choral Artists and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. The latter, playing peasant kids, are clad in colorful pastel costumes that wouldn't look out of place in a children's pop-up book.

There is also gorgeous singing by the likes of Simone Osborne, Erin Morley and Faith Sherman, respectively playing the Virgin Mary and the celestial "voices" Marguerite and Catherine who provide comfort to the despairing Joan. Christian Gonon entertainingly assumes a variety of roles, including the Narrator and the donkey, providing comic relief in the process.

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But it's Cotillard who truly shines. Her Joan is at first childlike in her confusion, and then both fearful and defiant as the end approaches. Her speaking voice as beautiful as her visage, she mainly remains physically still throughout the intense proceedings, bathed in a glow of white light, even when the auditorium turns fiery red, thanks to Thomas Costerg's stunning lighting design. Cotillard is clearly committed to the role — she first performed it in 2005 and then several times later, including in this production's premiere in Japan last year. It's impossible to take your eyes off her.

Culminating in a coup de theatre in which the entire ensemble, including the orchestra members, raises tiny candles into the air to indicate Joan's ascent into heaven, the production marks a triumphant season capper for the ever-adventurous New York Philharmonic.

Cast: Marion Cotillard, Eric Genovese, Christian Gonon, Erin Morley, Simone Osborne, Faith Sherman, Thomas Blondelle, Steven Humes
Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Director: Come de Bellescize
Set designer: Sigolene de Chassy
Lighting designer: Thomas Costerg
Costume designer: Colombe Lauriot Prevost
Presented by the New York Philharmonic

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