'Jeanne d'Arc,' for all its flaws, thrives under Ozawa's care
New York — There was a time when the music of Arthur Honegger was very much in vogue. When Charles Munch was music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he programmed the symphonies often. And people who heard the Munch performances of his ''Le roi David'' (''King David'') and ''Jeanne d'Arc au bucher'' (''Joan of Arc at the Stake'') never forgot them.
Now, Honegger has a new generation of champions - on records, Serge Baudo and Charles Dutoit, and in the concert hall, Seiji Ozawa. It was Ozawa who offered ''Jeanne d'Arc au bucher'' in a series of performances in Boston, then in Carnegie Hall. In fact, this turned out to be the finest thing Ozawa has done in many a year, but more of that anon.
The Honegger work does not hold up well these days. The elaborate text is by Paul Claudel, who was the rage of Paris in the '30s. Claudel brings us Joan just as she is going to the stake, giving us an odd sort of time-stopped fantasy flashback. Joan talks about her voices, experiences a demonic trial run by satanic animals, and finally makes peace with herself and praises God, as the flames begin to consume her body. Honegger tries to give this pseudo-philosophical tract a sense of theatrical vitality. In the moments of introspection, he succeeds. In the more extrovert pages, the music lacks the fervor and gripping tension that make the best of his symphonies so electrifying.
It is a work that has always puzzled people. In fact, when Misia Sert, one of the most influential arts patrons of the Parisian scene for the better part of four decades, walked out of the world premiere, she waxed quite caustic. According to her biographers Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale in their book ''Misia,'' she declared that ''This brings together the three biggest bores in the world, Claudel, Honegger, and Joan of Arc.''
Parts of the work could almost give credence to that declaration. The devilish trial, for instance, should be something of a capstone - a scene in which Berlioz would have been at his very finest. Even so, the feeling of epic calm and apotheosis/resolution that suffuses the mood of the music as Joan finally achieves inner peace is deftly, hauntingly managed. Thus ''Jeanne d'Arc au bucher'' remains a flawed work that can still hold interest if the performance is sufficient to mask the lapses.
It is hard to remember when Ozawa has been in better touch with the dramatic thrust of a work, when he has been more willing to bathe his audience in lush, exquisite orchestral colors, when he has allowed the Boston Symphony to play unabashedly like the great orchestra it is. The Georges Wilson staging could have been dispensed with - all that coming and going, all those tacky props, the black turtleneck shirts, Joan's white prison garb, all arrayed on a stage behind and above the orchestra. How much less distracting it would have been to allow the actors and singers, in concert attire, to stand in front of the orchestra and declaim.
Overall, the singing was nondescript, although the Tanglewood Festival Chorus's contribution was expectedly fine. Actor/director Wilson's declamatory powers proved impressive, but finally this was as much Marthe Keller's evening as it was Ozawa's. The Swiss actress was recruited after Meryl Streep bowed out to do yet another movie, and Miss Keller triumphed. She projected just the right sort of husky stage voice that gave her delivery a distinctively Gallic authority. Even with some of the silliest things Mr. Wilson had her do, she remained throughout passionately convincing.