Here, then Nowhere: 'The Maid of Orleans'

woo-1503-250Plenty of historical characters have inspired all kinds of music. But the musical legacy of the mysterious -- and mystical? -- 15th-century heroine Joan of Arc has a sheer variety that may come as a surprise.

In the world of pop music alone, there's a dreamy Leonard Cohen song called "Joan of Arc," popularized by Judy Collins; a more up-tempo tune by the contemporary, indie-rock band Arcade Fire; and then there's "Miley Cyrus Vs. Joan of Arc" -- an installment of the widely popular YouTube series, Epic Rap Battles of History.

The realm of classical music boasts a number of Joan of Arc operas, in a similarly wide range of styles. The 20th-century Swiss composer Arthur Honegger wrote one called Joan of Arc at the Stake. Giuseppe Verdi set Joan's story in his often-overlooked 1845 opera Giovanna d'Arco. And, there's the opera featured here, Tchaikovsky's intriguing, yet at times frustrating drama, The Maid of Orleans.

Tchaikovsky wrote his own libretto for The Maid of Orleans, which premiered at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg in 1881. The composer had high hopes for the score, predicting it would be "the one that will make my name popular." And it did -- for a while.

The opera's opening night was a major success. Then, it ran into bad luck. Tchaikovsky once observed that while a successful symphony might be played just once in several years, an opera can be performed dozens of times in a single season. But, just weeks after the premiere of The Maid of Orleans, Russia's Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, prompting the cancellation of the entire opera season -- and Tchaikovsky's opera, it seems, was quickly forgotten. At Moscow's Bolshoi, for example, it wasn't heard for more than a century!

Still, bad luck may only be part of the reason the opera is seldom-heard today. For one thing, the extraordinarily demanding title role requires a singer with the range and timbre of both a soprano, and a mezzo-soprano. But perhaps more vitally, the opera itself can be heard as a bit of a hodge-podge, for reasons that are hard to pin down.

Much has been written, both overtly and implicitly, saying the opera founders due to psychological factors involving the composer's sexual orientation. Some of that discussion, at least, may have some merit; recent scholarship often evaluates Tchaikovsky's music with his personal life as a backdrop.

Still, the opera's problems holding the stage may also have more obvious, and less shadowy, origins. The Maid of Orleans tends to veer suddenly back and forth between intimate expressions of deeply personal sentiments, and noisy portrayals of spectacle and bombast. And, even within those contrasting perimeters, there are juxtapositions that can seem jarring.

Joan's character is just one example. At some times, she appears deeply spiritual and selfless. In other instances, she seems almost vindictive, as when blaming Lionel, the man she loves, for her own inner conflicts. As for the opera's spectacle, that runs the gamut as well -- from the worldly extravagance of Charles VII's coronation, to the fervent terror of Joan's immolation.

Whether these contrasts and contradictions make the opera a profoundly complex experience, or a theatrical train-wreck, is for the audience to decide. Either way, it's a compelling drama. When we see a potentially harrowing accident about to take place, it's often confoundingly difficult to turn away.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents The Maid of Orleans in a production from the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. Anna Smirnova takes on the wide-ranging title role, in a production led by conductor Tugan Sokhiev.