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La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

Jeanne au bûcher in eleven flashbacks

Jasper Croonen
Reading time
7 min.

Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake) marks the return of Romeo Castellucci to La Monnaie. A year after his radical new reading of Die Zauberflöte, the Italian director, metteur en scène, lighting and costume designer is turning his attention to Arthur Honegger’s extraordinary ‘oratorio dramatique’. This urgent piece of musical modernism tells the life story of France’s national heroine in eleven scenes, but then in reverse: from her death sentence to her youthful calling. We follow the approach of Honegger and his librettist Paul Claudel, and in our turn present this production in eleven retrogressive steps .

© Stofleth

Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher will be premièred at La Monnaie on November 5th 2019. The opera house’s former music director Kazushi Ono will be back in our orchestra pit for the first time since 2008 to conduct this production that embodies a fascinating and at times eventful 85-year history: from a Russian  patron, through a Brussels première to a few agitators in Lyon.


 Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher is a coproduction with the Opéra de Lyon, the Perm Opera and Theater Basel. Given that Joan of Arc is a French phenomenon, it seemed only right that the première in 2017 should be staged in Lyon. As proved to be the case once again, you re-interpret this emotionally charged and politically recuperated phenomenon at your peril, however legitimate and respectful that interpretation. Press and public may have been wildly enthusiastic about it, but a not insubstantial group of protesters with links to religious and far-right organizations gathered at the last performance. Armed with Bengal lights, they took their ‘Hommage à Jeanne’ so far that eventually the riot police had to intervene.

Turmoil in Lyon
Turmoil in Lyon ©

The agitators, however, played into the director’s hands, for Castellucci’s starting point was the acknowledgement that Joan of Arc “[…] has become a glorified martyr, claimed by both royalists and the Vichy regime, by resistance movements, the suffragettes and human rights organizations but also by nationalist and xenophobic political parties.” In his reading, Castellucci sets out to strip Joan of all that historical ballast and “reveal the naked woman under the myth.”


Romeo Castellucci was hardly a surprising choice, for the stage philosopher’s trademark largely derives from iconoclastic theatre and opera productions that explore religious and emotionally charged themes with intellectual intrepidity. At La Monnaie he has done this with, for example, Wagner’s Parsifal (2011) and at the Opéra de Paris with Schoenberg’s biblical opera Moses und Aron (2015), where a live bull shared the stage with – yes, on that occasion too – a naked actor. Four years earlier, his spectacular production Sul concetto di volto nel figlio di Dio (On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God, 2011) explored the relationship between a son and his dependent, incontinent father against the backdrop of a huge portrait of Christ.

© Stofleth

Though Honegger’s mystère lyrique is not often staged, this new production is certainly not the first in the new millennium. One of the most notable productions of Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher in recent years was in 2005 when rising Hollywood star Marion Cottillard performed the speaking role of the Maid. Likewise, at La Monnaie the action is driven by a true-born French actress: Audrey Bonnet and she is not the first to have been cast in the role of Joan on our stage. Indeed, La Monnaie has brought Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher to the Belgian capital several times. The last time was in 1975, even if the 1952 production is the more memorable. Jeanne Loriod played the ondes Martenot, the electronic instrument she is identified with and which is given an important part in Honegger’s oratorio. More about that later.


First we travel six years further back in time to when Brussels played an important role in the history of stagings of Honneger’s oratorio. On February 2nd 1946, the Center for Fine Arts hosted the world première of Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher with prologue. That version was set to music by Honegger at the end of the Second World War, librettist Paul Claudel having penned a revised version of the text at the start of it: “au plus profond de notre malheur,” – in the depths of our adversity. In it the author drew a parallel between the English invasion in the fifteenth century and German occupation in the twentieth. The shift in emphasis in the version with prologue and altered historical context shine a new light on Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher. In retrospect, we are left with a slightly bitter aftertaste, with the oratorio now reading as a portend of the imminent European catastrophe.


And yet at the world première in Basel on May 12th 1938, the work had been a symbol of pan-European collaboration between the Swiss protestant Honneger, the devout Catholic Paul Claudel and the Jewish (!!) actress Ida Rubinstein. The première was a huge success. After that production of Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, conductor Paul Sacher wrote in a letter to Rubinstein of his desire to express his gratitude for her generosity. The music press was also unanimous in its praise of the new composition.

Arthur Honegger (left) and Paul Claudel (right) during rehearsals for Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher.
Arthur Honegger (left) and Paul Claudel (right) during rehearsals for Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher. ©

No wonder, because the work that Honegger started work on in 1935 is a kaleidoscopic gem. The eleven scenes oscillate between contemporary French art music, which Honegger imbibed in the company of his Groupe des Six friends, and spiritual chorales in the style of J.S. Bach. In-between you also detect the influence of easy-listening music such as jazz and music hall. While the work as a whole puts you in mind of a classical tragedy, the orchestra expresses the optimism of progress in the interwar years: an extra-large orchestration with a pianist, a part for the – less than a century old – saxophone, and the use of one of the earliest electronic instruments, the ondes Martenot.


That is not the only time an electric power surge has occurred in Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher since its creation. At the end of 1934, Paul Claudel set to and wrote the libretto in barely a fortnight. No wonder because, according to the poet, he had the following vision:“[…] avec la netteté d’une secousse électrique, un geste se dessina devant les paupières de mon esprit à moitié closes […] c’était le signe de la croix.” – with the sharpness of an electric shock, an image formed before the half-closed eyelids of my mind [...] it was the sign of the cross. Only after that apparition, on yet another train journey to Brussels, did he succumb to writing under pressure. Before that the Catholic Claudel had always refused to collaborate on the project, out of respect for the material.

© Stofleth

In 1934 Claudel was a celebrated author, known (among other things) for his eleven-hour-long mystical drama Le Soulier de Satin (The Satin Slipper). His religious conviction undoubtedly meant he had an affinity with the historical and religious subject of the oratorio; the poet also had previous experience of working with composers. More or less contemporaneously with our story, Honegger’s fellow composer Darius Milhaud wrote the stage music for Claudel’s play La Sagesse. Yet Honegger only came knocking at Paul Claudel’s door after not seeing eye to eye with the writer and dramaturge Jehanne d’Orliac. A good year before Claudel wrote his poem in a burst of activity in 1934, she came up with a first draft at the request of Honegger and his patron Ida Rubinstein.


And it is with Ida Rubinstein that the history of Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher begins. The flamboyant Russian actress and dancer is best known for having commissioned Ravel’s Boléro and Stravinsky’s Le Baiser de la fée. In 1934 she discussed her idea for a Joan of Arc drama with Arthur Honegger, expressing her wish to play a last lead role. Shortly before that Rubinstein had been inspired by productions by Les Théophiliens, a theatre company at the Sorbonne specializing in medieval mystery plays. That was the initial spark underlying the oratorio. A spark that shimmers throughout the whole history of Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher. From the original in Basel to the current production. Because even in Castellucci’s profane set, mystery is never far off.

Translation by Alison Mouthaan