A modest epic tale

Steven Jobe’s haunting Joan of Arc
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  May 19, 2010

What beautiful voices and music in this event. Steven Jobe’s Joan of Arc: An Opera In Three Acts is at once ambitious and quite modest, but vocally and musically it remains a pleasure throughout its three brief acts at the Blackstone River Theater in Cumberland (through May 23).

Photo: Tom Stio

That brevity — 90 minutes, including intermission — has much to do with the success. The quality of the performers easily sustains our interest over that time, although the no- to-low-budget production values would more likely distract us if this performance were of an epic length to match the epic story.

Jobe, who wrote the music and the libretto, was interested in focusing on the mysterious visions of Joan more than the warrior saga usually depicted. In that regard, the opera is subtitled “A shepherd girl, gone mad for the angels.”

Directed by Bob Colonna, the result is an atmospheric portrait, an hour and a half of modulating moods suitable to be conveyed through a 16-person orchestra, conducted by Mark Davis, and 13 voices. Joan of Arc was first performed about 10 years ago, and this is presented as “fully staged” for the first time. However, since this is more an internal rather than visual offering, it might be more effective with the actors in black and us simply imagining upraised swords and costumes, just as we imagine horses in staged battle scenes. As it is, fleurs-de-lis on black plastic ponchos diminish rather than enhance the sense of being there.

The gentle and yet stalwart Joan, the shepherd girl who heeded her visions, is performed by Teresa Wakim, who has sung opera, oratorio, and chamber art songs internationally. Jason McStoots, as the dauphin she strives to bring to the throne, maintains the presence of a royal worthy of respect. He has appeared frequently with the Boston Lyric Opera.

Musically, we are given a blend of medie-val-flavored scoring expanded into modern-sounding harmonies and instrumentations. In addition to a five-voice chorus, a more intimate chorus of two is provided by Kate Katzberg as St. Catherine and Erin Reed Ferenbaugh as St. Margaret, presenting the visions and voices that inspire Joan to raise her sword. Playing both ministers and judges, Tobias Petrone and Jacob Cooper supply well-acted seriousness of purpose as well as resonant baritones that amplify the same. The chorus is composed of David Brown, Jaya Lakshminarayanan, Rebecca Leuchak, Joel McCoy, and Cory Mulvey.

Since the singers are not miked, the orchestra sometimes drowns out voices in quieter passages, where the words are subdued for dramatic effect. (The libretto is available for sale at performances.)

Although the historical story is quite abbreviated, we do get a sense of how Joan inspired the loyalty of an army rather than being dismissed as an ambitiously deluded country girl. Once she is accepted, she is even credited with raising the wind that fills their sails as they voyage to Orleans.

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