It has been over a year since I posted an announcement of plans by the New Orleans Opera to produce my English translation of Tchaikovsky’s opera “Joan of Arc” (“Maid of Orleans”). Coincidentally, Joan is the patron saint of New Orleans. Those plans have now been finalized, and it’s in production for performances at the Mahalia Jackson Center for the Performing Arts on the evening of Friday, February 7, 2020 and as a matinee on Sunday, February 9.
In my earlier posting I’d remarked on plans to clean up the old translation (performed by the Canadian Opera Company in 1978) by September of 2018, but the work actually lasted through November of that year. The revisions were so complex that I now in all good conscience can claim that the New Orleans Opera production will technically be a World Premiere!
Here’s why. This past September I was invited by the Krewe of Joan of Arc (a Mardi Gras organization with their parade scheduled for January 6—Joan’s birthday) to give a talk about the opera at their annual Salon de Jeanne d’Arc. Significantly, 2020 will be the 100th anniversary of her canonization. In my talk I discussed a serious “literary” problem in the libretto (written by Tchaikovsky himself), specifically the Love Duet in Act IV.
In my first translation, I’d been a slavish Slavic literalist, translating what Tchaikovsky wrote verbatim, if that means anything in a translation. Though I hadn’t been at all pleased with the duet, what could a mere translator do? I explained to the Krewe:
“You’re probably aware that historically the saintly Joan actually never fell in love with anybody. But to follow the operatic convention and satisfy his intensely romantic nature, Tchaikovsky hauled in a love theme with the Burgundian knight Lionel—which runs head on into Joan’s vow of chastity. I do believe that detail was also Tchaikovsky’s invention to turn the inspired peasant girl into a terrible sinner. That way he could project his own angst and guilt over being a homosexual onto the poor maiden’s head, pun intended.
“Joan’s enormously conflicted feelings—and those of Petr Ilyich himself—led into a love duet that just plain didn’t work. Joan had to sing about how miserable she was and agonize about breaking her holy vow, abandoning all hope of heaven, by loving Lionel. A real downer…
“While indisputably Tchaikovsky was a giant among composers, I’m afraid as a struggling poet he fell flat on his face in this obligatory love duet. Maybe you’ll think I’m betraying the role of translator—my sincere apologies—but I’ve almost totally rewritten the love duet. So sue me!
“There was a brief phrase in it, ‘marvelous gift of love.’ Tchaikovsky apparently wrote those words recalling a charming but depressing chorus of minstrels in Act Two. They sang that love’s a gift from God, a flower sent from heaven, a magic talisman that enchants us and enthralls the soul with rapture, etc., etc.
“Since turnabout is supposedly fair play, I took the romantic sentiments of that early chorus and turned them into an ecstatic love duet. It may not be Shakespeare, but now it works, by golly.”
I suppose simply rewriting a love duet isn’t alone enough to make a world premiere. What I didn’t tell the Krewe was that to make the new duet work I had to adjust a number of lines in Acts III and IV to redeem Joan from Tchaikovsky’s casting her as a terrible sinner, to provide her with spiritual enlightenment, and to re-frame her execution at the stake as not an ignoble punishment for moral failure but as an apotheosis, a virgin martyr’s crown and the rapture of God’s divine embrace awaiting her in heaven.
Therein lies the rationale for calling the New Orleans Opera production of my new translation a world premiere. Nobody has ever seen this now truly grand opera before.