Tlalocan – The Paradise of Tlaloc

Occasionally I’ve interrupted drawing for my coloring book to remark on particularly interesting details (like the Divine Volcanoes and Visions of Tezcatlipoca), and here I go again.

The icon I’m working on right now is for Tlaloc, God of Storms (as well as rain and weather in general), a very ancient deity with antecedents among the Maya as Chak and in Teotihuacan, his actual name unknown, at least a thousand years before the Aztecs. In conceptualizing the icon, I’m including as the base register an image of Tlalocan, the Paradise of Tlaloc, adapted from a mural at Teotihuacan (c. 500 CE).

In my process, I first gather, massage and manipulate source material to create a layout. After settling on the composition, I turn the images into line drawings. Working with a mural from Teotihuacan—and snitching a neat piece of Codex Vindobonensis—I’ve reconfigured it to be what I call the Tlalocan, the Paradise of Tlaloc, restoring the heavily damaged left half:

Teotihuacan Mural Reconfigured by Richard Balthazar

Keep in mind that the Teotihuacan mural (with an obfuscating deep red background), was painted some 1,500 years ago—before European monks ever started illuminating manuscripts.

Some scholars argue that this mural represents the sacred Water Mountain—Cerro Gordo behind the city—and was associated with the (also nameless) Great Goddess. While her mural is positioned right above this one, I heartily disagree and have removed the arguable “mountain,” moving in the centerpiece from the upper border (enlarged), an indubitable image of the fanged, goggle-eyed deity the later Aztecs dubbed Tlaloc.

The deity also holds “head”-pitchers like those Tlaloc holds in Codex Borgia pouring water onto the maize-fields. As well, the dedication to Tlaloc is tripled by the matching busts of the iconic water deity in the upper corners. In upper center, I’ve installed an anachronistic Mouth of the Earth pouring forth water (from Vindobonensis). The name Tlaloc means “He of the Earth.”

I have no problem with Cerro Gordo being the sacred Water Mountain of Teotihuacan. That nearby massif may well have sourced lots of springs and streams, and I gather there’s evidence of intensive agricultural terracing and other works on its slopes and summit. The original Water Mountain image in the mural I assert to be in fact the way of entry into the afterlife of Tlalocan. The figures in its waters aren’t just gaily swimming around but struggling, sinking, maybe drowning, and ultimately erupting into the Paradise of the god later known as Tlaloc. Note the attempted life-saving. I found the image nice but unnecessary. After all we’re worshipping LKA Tlaloc here.

“Water Mountain” from Original Mural at Teotihuacan

Circumstantially, priority entry into Tlalocan, a joyful place of games, butterflies and flowers, was granted to victims of drowning, then to children sacrificed to Tlaloc—note the many children in the mural’s pastiche—and only afterwards to victims of certain diseases such as leprosy. Those less than enviable passports aside, Tlaloc’s 8th heaven (out of the 13), was a great place to wind up, all dancing, singing, and having fun. In the other heavens, not so much…

If you squint at the little figures in the mural, you’ll see groups engaging in several games. On the far left it’s with soccer-type balls while another guy runs in perhaps a hybrid of bowling and hopscotch. Moving to the right, we come to a bunch of dancers, and beside them a guy getting tossed into the air. On the deity’s crest, four fellows play perhaps some version of leapfrog. On their right, kids play marbles, and four guys play on something maybe related to a teeter-totter.

Historically significant are those little curlicues issuing from the figures’ mouths, the symbol for song: These folks are rejoicing, singing out their joy. Even the birds I lifted from the Great Goddess mural are singing as on far right. (In the original a tiny worm also sings!) I know this symbol because it’s widespread in the Aztec codices of a thousand years later meaning the same.

I’m taken with the little guy on the lower right bending to admire a flower. This stretch of plants and figures has been called a scene of farming, but that’s just nonsense. Farming in heaven? The man standing on the far right might be yodeling, and the kid under the bush is merrily waving a flower, not particularly agrarian activities. Various other figures scattered around seem to be telling stories or doing tricks. A good time is being had by all.

Generally, I try not to engage in much speculation, but this time it’s terribly tempting. Let me suggest an intriguing possibility. Perhaps with the Water Mountain adjacent to their prosperous city the Teotihuacanos came to think of their world as literally Tlalocan on earth. Maybe they didn’t, but Mesoamerican history could have—taking that long-gone civilization into their cosmology as the Third Sun, Four Rain.

According to the Aztecs, Four Rain was ruled by Tlaloc while consorting with Xochiquetzal (Flower Feather), who might have been the Great Goddess, though She was usually seen as the proto-Chalchiuhtlicue (Jade Skirt). Lore has it that when Tezcatlipoca (The Smoking Mirror) abducted his goddess, Tlaloc raged and destroyed the Third Sun in a rain of fire.

This apocalyptic detail suggests another possibility. I’ve read that right around 600 CE there was a major eruption of Popocatepetl which, besides raining fire, spread a pyroclastic flood of toxic gases all over the valley of Anahuac (Mexico). Is it just coincidence that at exactly this time the civilization and people of Teotihuacan vanished?

Just wondering…

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The Faces of Death

In this dire virus situation, we are all looking death in the face, but we can’t really see what it looks like wearing a mask and standing at a sociable distance. So I tried to get an up-close look at the face of death through the sanitized lens of Aztec art. They were intimate with that inevitable fact of life and drew many detailed pictures of it.

In their calendars, the Aztecs represented the day Death, Miquitzli, the sixth in their 20-day month, as a skull, often fancifully ornamented:

Signs for the Aztec Day Death

While the examples from Codex Cospi are the most varied and almost playful, they’re not exactly “fun” or amenable. Not that they were supposed to be… By the way, notice the tassels fed through the earlobes. Ears on a skull? This could become a new fashion fad!

The Aztecs also personified, or if you will, deified death as Mictlantecuhtli, Lord of the Land of the Dead (Mictlan). He was portrayed in various styles with many common motifs as a skeleton, often with a sacrificial knife for a nose and a semi-circular headdress, usually with a central spike. (Note two incipient examples of the spike among the Cospi signs above.) In Codex Borgia, he often wears a hand as a tassel through his earlobe. In the display below I skipped the skeletons and show only the skulls. None of them is particularly warm and cuddly, but again I guess Death’s heads simply aren’t.

Heads of Aztec Lord of Death

These gruesome images, which underlie many Day of the Dead graphics, weren’t especially frightening for the Aztecs who had a deep reverence for Mictlantecuhtli, even to the point of ritual cannibalism. I felt a similar, though not so hungry, reverence a few years ago when I drew the icon for the Lord of Death. He’s existentially pretty grand, but his beckoning gesture isn’t very enticing. Note the spiked ornament and the Magliabechiano headdress. Besides a vaguely realistic jaguar pelt, I used my artistic license to hang that spider web across his midriff. Oh, and those are eyeballs hanging from his cape. They do look a bit like googly eyes.

Aztec Lord of Death

These boney specters were the way I saw the Aztec face of Death until quite recently when I decided to re-create the book of days (tonalamatl) in the Codex Rios. I suddenly got glimpses of his real face instead of a fleshless skull.

They say that Codex Rios (one of the zillions of documents held by the Vatican Library) is a 16th-century Italian copy of the more or less pre-conquest codex called Telleriano-Remensis. As a copy it wasn’t terribly faithful, taking many liberties with images—some really worked; some didn’t—and making several mistakes in the numbering of days. But it was good that Rios took liberties because T-R is crude artistically speaking, though at times the copy itself was sloppy.

The T-R tonalamatl was drawn in pieces, each 13-day week (trecena) laid out with the first five days and main patron on one page and the last eight on another with the second patron/symbol. Rios followed that format exactly. In my re-creation, the weeks will be presented whole on their own pages to give an integral view of the time periods and supernatural characteristics.

The T-R and Rios tonalamatls include the nine Lords of the Night in sequence with the days, a cycle taking many years to complete (9 Lords/260 days). These Lords also appear (very sketchily) in Codex Cospi and in the complicated layouts of Codex Borbonicus and Tonalamatl Aubin along with Lords of the Day and totem birds, but in T-R/Rios the Lords of the Night are shown prominently alone in distinctive portrait busts.

The fifth Lord of the Night—and Lord of the fifth (mid-night) hour of the night—is none other than Mictlantecuhtli. He occurs 29 times during most of the 260-day years. In T-R he’s rendered as a full-fleshed “person” with remarkably consistent accoutrements. There are only 22 faces of Lord Death below because I don’t have copies of a few of the T-R pages. I doubt the missing pages will contain any surprises:

Faces of the Lord of Mictlan (Codex Telleriano-Remensis)

Again, the headdress with spiked ornament is standard, as well as a black lower face. Since these are given in order, there seems to be a greater finesse in the first several busts, if only for the green on the scarf “flaps.” The artist probably got tired as the days rolled by.

Note the plus signs on most of the scarves—they’re NOT crosses but a geometric motif possibly having to do with the four directions and center. Most consistent are the profiles of the Lord. The protruding mouth and often pendulous lower lip must have some iconographic significance, but unless it’s meant to convey menace, I haven’t a clue. Note also the almost identical noses—which appear on several other T-R Lords of the Night. This ancient artist had a clear template.

On the other hand, the artist(s) of the Codex Rios copy did not have a standard physiognomy for Mictlantecuhtli. Even standard formats in Rios tend to vary widely in execution and detail. As well, the artist(s) had to squeeze the day- and deity-images to accommodate notes (in Italian) naming the days and good, bad, or indifferent luck. With mostly consistent traditional ornamentation, the faces of Death in Rios are strongly individual:

Faces of the Lord of Mictlan (Codex Rios)

In my re-creation of the Rios tonalamatl, I won’t render all the variant images of the deities but will repeat an established portrait of each one using the modern magic of copying. I cherry-picked among the above 29 images to choose my favorite details and distilled them down to this interpretation of Mictlantecuhtli, the face of Death.

Lord of Mictlan

When I peered through Aztec art and discovered this evocative human face, I fell in love with lovely Death. Now I can look this beautiful Lord in the eye and happily know he awaits. I plan on making him wait for a great long while, but when he beckons, it will be good to fall into his arms.

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Memoir of My Second Coming Out

Over the past few years I’ve switched back and forth between drawing Aztec icons for my coloring book and writing on my second memoir. At last I’ve wrapped the latter up and have just added it to the growing list of my Writings. Note that I don’t copyright my writing; people shouldn’t have to pay to enjoy my art, graphic or literary. So I post it for free download and avoid noxious commercialism. The more folks to read or see my work the better. Or to do something with it if they so feel like…

LORD WIND is the memoir of my second coming out in Milwaukee in 1970. My first coming out was in New Orleans in 1961 (in the gay Stone Age when we lived in caves of secrecy), and I’ve written about my unusual life as a gay man both in my (semi-fictional) novels BAT IN A WHIRLWIND and DIVINE DEBAUCH and in my first (also semi-fictional) memoir THERE WAS A SHIP. The latter (1964-66), was my scandalous tale of going back into the closet.

Now the purely non-fictional LORD WIND (1970-72), picks up again after years of wedlock when I escaped from my cage—and discovered that gay life had evolved into a (Post-Stonewall) Neolithic Era. As a former French Quarter faerie/slut, and now a divorced father and esoteric scholar of 28, I had to deal with the realities of the strange gay “civilization” and make a new life for myself in it.

Richard Balthazar in December, 1970–newly come out for the second time

No longer an outlaw, I still wasn’t exactly socially condoned, but in the new gay atmosphere of openness and promiscuity, I quickly found romantic/sexual entanglements to complicate life. In those two years I learned a heck of a lot about loving men and several hard lessons in maturity.

I’m trying a new format with this book on the web—for ease of access. The webpage is actually its Title page and chapter list, and each can be directly accessed through its link. No more bulky .pdf files of entire texts. I’ll try to convert the others to it too. Early on I issued each chapter of BAT IN A WHIRLWIND separately in blogposts, so that one will be easy to convert.

Wrapping up this book is a really great feeling for me. With it I’ve now built a four-volume saga (epic?) of my life from innocent adolescent through lascivious, debauched youth and responsible, though philandering, husband to a maybe more mature, but at least way more experienced, gay man of 30. This is gay ancient history according to moi… Now I can start the third memoir covering the 70s in Washington DC. In many ways that decade was a Classic Age of gay life and DC an epicenter, and I was right in the middle of it.

However, before I write a word of it, I’ve got to make some good progress on the next icon (#20) of the God of Storms, Tlaloc. While on that subject, you’ll notice that I simply had to use my drawing of Ehecatl, Aztec God of the Wind as a most appropriate title image for LORD WIND.

BTW, my YE GODS! Show is still under lockdown at the Ohkay Conference Center. There’s nothing else I can do with it, so why not?

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A New Human Age

Maria Branyas, survivor

In isolation at a care-home in Spain where she’s been living for 20 years, Maria Branyas (113) survived Covid-19. For The Guardian, she reflected on what the world may look like after the pandemic: “…I think nothing will be the same again, and don’t think about redoing, recovering, rebuilding. It will have to be done all over again and differently. … You need a new order, a change in the hierarchy of values and priorities, a New Human Age…”

The old order which Maria rejects is, of course, the economic system that informs and directs society. But the Oxford Dictionary defines “economy” as: 1) “the wealth and resources of a country or region, especially in terms of the production and consumption of goods and services” and 2) “careful management of available resources.” Note no mention here of an “order” or “system,” and “management” is simply an undefined process.

Our old order has been in place for millennia. Ever since humans lived in trees, on savannahs, or in caves, there’s been only one rule for management of resources: Take what you can get and keep it. The sole modus operandi for humanity’s economic activity has been private enterprise.

Since absolutely forever, private enterprise has been the only game in town. Political systems will sometimes tweak the rules—and simply complicate matters and magnify existing inequities and injustices. Maria is totally correct about doing it all over again and differently. We don’t need to change the rules of the old game but to start a whole new ball-game!

As the old order, private enterprise has now outlived its effectiveness for managing resources and providing for the common good. In a new ball-game, the wealth and resources of countries or regions can no longer be private property of individuals but public property. And the people can manage their resources themselves, with benefits accruing to the public at large.

A new order of public enterprise and benefit can focus on the common good, supporting, embodying and perfecting democracy. Vigorously and very likely violently opposed by the entrenched old order, such a systemic switch of values and priorities for a “New Human Age” will not come easily. And I’m certainly not the one to say how to make it happen.

After the pandemic devastates economically all but the (corporate) elite, for at least a decade, they say, the old order will try to redo, recover and rebuild. Fantasizing about a future on a global, monopolistic scale, the obsolete system of private enterprise will surely prove even less productive of common good then with the world’s population essentially infinite in number.

If it doesn’t kill us first, this wretched pandemic ironically offers us a now-or-never opportunity to birth a New Human Age. At this unprecedented crux in human history, maybe we can at last create a truly humane society.

Let’s do it!

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Aztec Lords of the Night

After finishing Icon #19 for my coloring book, and before jumping on the next one, I’ve been plugging along on another Aztec project, this one in color! Some time ago I decided to “re-create” the calendar from 16th-century Codex Rios, apparently a slightly later Italian copy of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis. Both of them offer fairly crude versions of deities and day-signs, with Rios tending to be at least a little more “artistic,” and both present the ceremonial count of days in disjointed pieces. So my re-creation will also be a re-construction.

In Codices Borgia and Vaticanus, the 13-day week (trecena) is laid out simply with ruling deities and the day-count. In Codex Borbonicus and Tonalamatl Aubin, the Lords of the Day and Night are included, but hard to differentiate, as well as their totem birds, mostly of dubious species.

Codices Rios and Telleriano-Remensis accompany the day-count and patron deities only with the nine Lords of the Night in a super-cycle that takes some centuries to complete. In sequence, the Lords of the Night preside over the nights of each calendar day and at the same time, in sequence, they preside over each of the nine hours of those nights.

Forgive me for saying this, but in these two related calendars, the images of the Lords are really sloppy, even slap-dash, though the deities are drawn with consistent, if careless, motifs. It would be rude to show you the original images of those abused Lords of the Night. Instead, refining their iconographic details, I’ve re-created them with more realistic faces in the style of Codices Fejervary-Mayer and/or Laud.

You can check them all out in greater detail in my Aztec pantheon, but here are some artist’s notes on these Lords of the Night.

1st Lord: Xiuhtecuhtli—Lord of the Turquoise/(Fire). Perhaps he has a red mouth from eating fire? The peaked headdress and red ribbon are standard emblems.

2nd Lord: Itztli—Obsidian. He’s a nagual (manifestation) of Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror. Again, I don’t know what the standard black markings on his face signify, but those things in his “hat” are sacrificial flint knives.

3rd Lord: Pilzintecuhtli—Young Lord. God of the planet Mercury, he is also a “sun-lord” as shown by the sun in his headdress. I can’t explain his golden hair, but all the Lords’ hair-colors are inexplicably the same as these in the earlier, purely Mexican codex.

4th Lord: Centeotl—God of Maize. Check out the cobs of maize in his headdress.

5th Lord: Mictlantecuhtli—Lord of the Land of the Dead. In this most appealing image I’ve ever found of the death-god, the black lower face is standard. (The pointy thing in the headdress is reminiscent of the regalia of the god Itztlacoliuhqui.)

6th Lord: Chalchiuhtlicue—Jade Skirt. She’s the ancestral Great Goddess from ancient Teotihuacan.

7th Lord: Tlazolteotl—Goddess of Filth. Her mouth is black from eating people’s filth/sins. I can’t identify the tasseled objects in her headdress.

8th Lord: Tepeyollotl—Heart of the Mountain. His tri-color face (and yellow hair) are standard features for this god in these calendars.

9th Lord: Tlaloc—God of Storms. His goggle-eyed, long-toothed visage is emblematic in most codex contexts.

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Totems of the Aztec Lords of the Day

In Aztec culture, notions of time are central and perhaps inordinately important in terms of fate. Life was embedded in and permeated by strict divisions of divinatory time, starting with the agricultural and ceremonial calendars, in which respectively the 20 named days of the “month” were counted in 13 numbered days of the “week” (trecena). The basic division of the day was, of course, between day and night (with Cipactonal as god of the daytime and Oxomoco as goddess of the nighttime). This is where things get strange from our modern perspective.

Having no clocks per se, the Aztecs decided there were 13 “hours” in the daytime and 9 in the night. Probably with only an amorphous measure for a “minute,” I doubt they even thought about an Aztec “second.” Their 22-hour diurnal cycle meant their hour was in our terms almost 65½ minutes long. Thus their day lasts 14.18 and night 9.82 of our hours. It would be interesting to compare those figures with average periods of light and dark at the latitude of Mexico City.

Anyway, there’s a deity in charge of each day of the week, 13 gods or goddesses called Lords of the Day. With significant exceptions, most Lords are also considered patrons of their specific numbers, and though I’ve not seen any references to this, I’d bet that the same Lords rule the respective 13 daytime hours.

I say this because the 9 nighttime hours have rulers. The nine Lords of the Night are (in order): Xiuhtecuhtli, Itztli, Piltzintecuhtli, Centeotl, Mictlantecuhtli, Chalchiuhtlicue, Tlazolteotl, Tepeyollotl, and Tlaloc. (You can look them up in my Aztec Pantheon.) Surely the daytime hours were also ruled in order by the Lords of the Day. However, sources disagree about the ruling deities for some of the numbers/days.

What we do know for sure is the totems for the Lords of the Day (whoever they really are) and their connection to specific numbers. These totems are called in the jargon “volatiles” because they’re things that fly: birds and a butterfly. (Apparently other deities also have volatiles, like the bat or vulture of Itzpapalotl, but I’m not all that up on the finer details of Aztec ornithology.) Here are my versions of the volatile totems for the 13 Lords of the Day, days of the week, and I extrapolate, daytime hours—drawn on models from Codex Borgia.

Totems of the Lords of the Day

It could be fun chasing down the exact species of Totems 1 through 4: There are simply scads of hummingbird, hawk, and quail types in Mexico—and several eagles for Totems 5 and 8. I like seeing the Screech and Horned Owls differentiated and the distinctive Turkey, Macaw, Quetzal and Parrot. That Butterfly (Totem 7) has to be the most unusual one I’ve ever seen. Is there a lepidopterist in the house?

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Icon #19 – TEZCATLIPOCA, the Smoking Mirror

I’m happy to announce the completion of Icon #19 – Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror. Once again, the designs and motifs in this icon are drawn from images in the surviving pre-Conquest Aztec codices. It and the preceding 18 icons can be downloaded as .pdf files with captions from the YE GODS! coloring book page.

Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror

First, I should offer some tips for coloring if you’re so inclined:

1) The black stripes on the faces of the upper left and right figures should be paired with yellow, which is the emblematic color-scheme for this deity; in the original, the upper central figure is mostly white with a few color highlights—at your discretion.

2) All those sacrificial knives (flints) in the borders are supposed to be half white and half red, in whatever pattern you choose.

3) The patterns on the limbs and face of the main figure are supposed to be red tattoos; I should also note that in the original he has brown hair.

4) The hair-like figure flowing from the head of the monster should be red blood as well as the apparent stream from the deity’s severed leg. The rest of the colors are up to you.

The horned owl at top center is Tezcatlipoca’s personal “volatile” symbol (many deities have one). The upper figures are some of his various manifestations. The main scene is the story of the god’s battle with the Earth Monster (Cipactli) in which he lost a foot and then created the First Sun (or world), Four Jaguar, on her back. The day-signs along the bottom are those representing the direction North, with Jaguar numbered as four to name the Sun being created just above. The dots along the side are the numeral 10, of which Tezcatlipoca is patron, and they also indicate that he is the 10th lord of the Day.

That should be enough to get you going. As soon as I can, I’ll post the icon on the coloring book page in vectors so it can be sized freely with no change in line quality. Now, when I’ve caught my breath, I’ll move on to Icon #20 – Tlaloc, the Storm God.

Visions of Tezcatlipoca

In the couple months since my last posting about the Maid in New Orleans, my self-incarceration for the Corona virus has made it easy to focus on the last chapters of my second memoir “Lord Wind” (soon to be posted for free download), and drawing on Icon #19: Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror, for the coloring book YE GODS!

Like the 18 previous deities in the series, this icon is modelled on images from the few surviving Aztec codices and reflects the mythology summarized in my illustrated encyclopedia of the Aztec pantheon. The icon will present several visions of Tezcatlipoca, who is sometimes called The Black One. I offer here two of the vignettes as “teasers.”

The first is Tezcatlipoca as an eagle, which is based on an image from a calendar week in Codex Rios. I’ve re-created this unusual manifestation of the deity using the stylistics of Codex Nuttall and certain motifs from Codex Borgia. (The eagle is a symbol of power and dominance.)

Tezcatlipoca as eagle

The second is Tezcatlipoca manifesting as Itztlacoliuhqui (Curved Obsidian Blade), who is the god of stone, cold, sin, punishment, objectivity, and blind justice. This surreal image is a re-working of one from Codex Borbonicus, though similar, sometimes even more surreal, details can be found in other codices as well. It presents some striking innovations in the stylebook of Aztec iconography and raises questions about certain motifs. Your guess about what they mean is as good as mine.

Tezcatlipoca as Itztlacoliuhqui

One of these solitary days I’ll finish this icon. I’m still waiting for some final tweaks on the vectors for Icon #18: Xochipilli, Prince of Flowers. Meanwhile, like everything else, my show of larger icons at the Ohkay Casino and Conference Center has been locked down… In this “unprecedented” viral situation, the show of smaller icons lies in storage with no prospective venues.

I have no options but to keep on with the drawing—next will be Tlaloc, the Storm God—and like Candide, work in my garden. My 35 varieties of iris are just now coming into bloom to bring joy to this best of all possible worlds.

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JOAN OF ARC: The Maid in New Orleans

The Translator’s View by Richard Balthazar

Statue of Joan of Arc in New Orleans

On the 100th anniversary of her canonization, St. Joan of Arc appeared in New Orleans in a miraculous vision to the fortunate multitudes in the 2,100-seat Mahalia Jackson Theater, and I was privileged to be among them. The New Orleans Opera Association’s production of Tchaikovsky’s “Joan of Arc” was presented there February 7 & 9, 2020 under the artistic direction and musical baton of Maestro Robert Lyall. For the unfortunate multitudes who couldn’t be there to experience Joan’s epiphany, I want tell you all about it.

As the translator of Tchaikovsky’s Russian libretto of “Joan of Arc” into English, I’m probably as close as anybody alive to this work. The first translation was done for performances by the Canadian Opera Company in 1978, and though I thoroughly revised it afterwards, Michigan Opera Theatre used the first version for their 1979 production in Detroit. For New Orleans Opera Association’s production in 2020, I substantially revised it yet again.

Having seen the two earlier productions, I feel eminently qualified to critique the New Orleans production. “Maid of Orleans,” or “Joan of Arc,” was the composer’s foray into the field of French Grand Opera, and in my humble opinion, its grandiosity is incomparable. Connoisseurs of the genre, please feel free to differ…

As a Russian scholar, I’ll just say that in my translation the music sounds like it was written for my straight-forward and poetic English words, rather than for Tchaikovsky’s convoluted, many-syllabled Russian syntax. But I also thank Maestro Lyall for his superb edits smoothing out rough edges and much improving the “sing-ability” of some phrases.

In the same vein, I applaud Lyall for masterfully abridging Tchaikovsky’s sprawling libretto (which if performed in its entirety, would run for well over four hours!), into two hours and forty minutes of magnificent music and inspired drama. I also applaud his clever use of supertitles during overtures and entr’actes with brief texts to set true historical contexts and to link the disparate scenes into a cohesive narrative and easily followed story.

This translator’s view will be largely that of a discerning audience member with a long life in theater and opera. Necessarily, I’ll have to leave detailed musical analysis to the musicologists, but I’ll strive for objectivity in my descriptions.

The Production

In the four acts of the opera, scenes were all framed simply but ornately as though they were paintings. (In his libretto, Tchaikovsky called the Scenes “Pictures.”) The sets in the Pictures were pleasantly simple and effective, abstract constructions of planks and platforms—call it “plank and platform style,” adaptable and easy to alternate and to execute rapid scene changes.

The backdrops were beautifully “painterly.” That in the first act was particularly so with a hazy landscape and only an outline of a small church that was very symbolic. In later pictures we saw an elegant stained-glass window and then a vast iconic painting of a woman’s face. I thought at first it was Joan, but considering the halo, it made more sense for it to be the Virgin Mary. Whichever, it was an appropriately religious symbol and I hope Scenic Designer Steven C. Kemp is justly proud of his success!

The noted Stage Director, Jose Maria Condemi, should also take pride in his smooth handling of the numerous large crowd scenes and of his sensitive direction of the characters’ movements and interactions within the Pictures. The tableaux, ranging from pastoral to ornate cathedral, were beautifully composed, and all very subtly yet dramatically lit by Lighting Designer Don Darnutzer. Maybe it won’t be a spoiler if I praise his fiery pyre in the opera’s finale.

Joan of Arc at the stake – Photo: Brittney Werner

Let me offer my sincere compliment for the fantastic musicians of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, directed by Maestro Lyall. They poured Tchaikovsky’s immortal music out over the audience in powerful and heart-wrenching waves. While not a qualified music critic, I can only observe that it sounded really great!

But I do have more than a few clues about some other things. In my past I did a bit of Russian vocal coaching for singers (and for the Paul Hill Chorale to sing Kabalevsky’s “Requiem”). An important component of “Joan of Arc” is that it’s an enormously “choral” opera. Those large crowds mentioned earlier belted out several numbers that rattled the rafters, laments, prayers, fight songs, triumphal marches… What really blew me away was the Hymn in Act One. Prepared by Chorus Master Carol Rausch, the opera chorus sang with remarkable clarity and precision, delicately modulated to balance with the soloists, yet with startling power.

Having been in my long ago past an extra in the ballet “Coppelia” (and a life-long avocational dancer), I’ll claim to know about dance. The obligatory ballet number in Act Two was truly what the King ordered, a jolly entertainment, and likely a lot jollier and sprightlier than it would have been at any French court six hundred years ago. Choreographer Gretchen Erickson melded three superb dancers into an exciting athletic, even gymnastic, frolic. Of the three ballet numbers Tchaikovsky wrote for the opera, Maestro Lyall definitely chose to include the jolliest.

I must also commend the Fight Director Mike Yahn for the various sword fights and attendant mayhem. Avoiding flashy displays, he kept the violence to a realistic and convincing minimum, the way people actually try to stab each other with swords. And I’ll wind up my remarks on the physical production by praising the beautifully detailed period costumes for the peasants, nobles, and military, created by the talented Costumer Julie Winn. Joan’s armor alone was a marvelously medieval piece of work!

The Performances

As the heavenly-inspired peasant girl Joan of Arc, Hilary Ginther completely commanded the stage from the moment of her angelic inspiration through the triumphs, soul-wrenching romance, crushing tragedy and divine enlightenment to her ultimate immolation. This tiny but mighty mezzo Maid filled Mahalia’s huge house with the glory of her prophecies, prayers, spiritual anguish, religious fervor, heroic valor, tender love, and ultimate martyrdom. It is difficult to describe the glorious musicality of Ginther’s performance, but it was a tour de force, a true epiphany. I hope Joan of Arc can become this incredible artist’s signature role, and other opera companies should sign Hilary for many more productions of this masterpiece.

Blessing Joan to lead the troops – Photo: Brittney Werner

In commenting on tenor Casey Candebat’s performance as the Dauphin (King Charles VII), it’s hard not to resort to even more superlatives. In a word, he WAS superlative. With touching humanity, Casey’s rich, clear voice carried all the majesty, romance, and elements of Charles’ personal struggle between cowardice and bravery that Tchaikovsky had written into this role. His coronation address to Joan was a marvel of reverent adoration. Then, convinced by a few presumably divine claps of thunder, he, too, was swept up in the chorus’ orgy of fear and superstition. Abandoning Joan, he rushed off with his newly-won crown, ending the King’s role in her dramatic story that had been wonderfully sung.

Coronation of Charles VII – Photo: Brittney Werner

There are lots of other characters in this opera, and the performances of each and every one were outstanding.

The pivotal role of Thibaut, Joan’s father, was sung by bass Kevin Thompson who, as noted by others, has “a mountain of a voice.” That voice perfectly embodied the element of superstition on which the opera turns. Kevin’s remarkable bass voice, aided by those aforementioned divine thunderclaps, created a true avalanche of fear, hatred, and stupidity that swept Joan from her exalted heights into a pit of despair and exile—the ultimate parental guilt trip. No wonder that during the bows Kevin earned the audience’s heartfelt boos!

Soprano Elana Gleason, playing Agnès Sorel, the King’s affectionate mistress, expertly delivered her extremely difficult love arietta with the King—with its very high notes!—with great delicacy and tenderness. We should all have such generous mistresses!

The role of Dunois, duc d’Orléans, was impressively fulfilled by dramatic baritone Michael Chioldi, who served as the conscience and inspiration for the King. In all of his scenes, Michael’s resonant voice drove the action, his nobility instilling courage and resolve. It is a complicated role with its aspects of conflicting loyalty and heroic determination.

The role of the romantic male lead, the Burgundian knight Lionel, was performed by baritone Joshua Jeremiah. Lionel is a pivotal role, a man who turns from French traitor into passionate lover, who first abuses Joan as a demon and then becomes her protector. In the final love duet, Joshua’s heroic voice blended perfectly with Joan’s mezzo in praise of God’s heavenly gift of love. (Unfortunately, he had to die—but did so grandly.)

I was thrilled by bass Raymond Aceto’s Archbishop who narrated to the court with ecclesiastical majesty Joan’s first appearance with the French troops, her leading them into battle, and their victory over the English. Raymond’s every word was crystal clear and weighty with the miracle of it all. He brought the same musical authority to all his other scenes, whether urging the people to believe or interrogating Joan’s virtue, or even when proving to be just as stupidly superstitious as everybody else.

In Act One, Kameron Lopreore movingly played Raymond, a village suitor whom Joan rejected; his tenor solo line in the Hymn was sung with plaintive force. Bertrand, a peasant refugee, was sung with immense pathos by baritone Ken Weber, and his solo line in the Hymn was a profound lament. The unnamed Warrior played by baritone David Murray dramatically narrated his narrow escape from the battle of Orleans and confirmed Joan’s first prophecy. In Act Two a dying soldier named Loree was sung by Frank Convit. His lines urging the King to join the fray and his final words “I’ve done my duty now…” were sung with all the poignant power of a seasoned soloist. All four of these roles were expertly delivered.

Concluding Remarks

You’re probably wondering if the preceding descriptions can be called objective, but I assure you they were—I could find nothing even vaguely negative to say! But, though I’d love to say that the New Orleans production of “Joan of Arc” was flawless, I admit there was one challenging detail.

Three times Joan hears the heavenly voices, and the angelic messages are crucial to the very structure of the opera. First, they send her forth on her mission, and second, they proclaim her mission accomplished and call her to come to glory (where a virgin martyr’s crown awaits, as well as rapture in God’s divine embrace). Then, third, they welcome Joan into heaven.

The off-stage voices of the angels, necessarily somewhat muted and baffled by curtains, largely got drowned out, sometimes by the enthusiastic orchestration and at other times by competing vocal lines. Fortunately, the words appeared on the supertitle screen—albeit quite briefly—allowing audience members to some degree to follow what they were supposed to be hearing sung and to sort it out from the other competing vocal lines.

What I could hear of Julia Tuneberg’s lovely soprano was ethereal, but her single voice was mostly lost in the melee.  If that was anyone’s fault, it was the composer’s.  Julia’s vocal lines being absolutely the most important element of the sequences, and given the traditional limitations and challenges of writing for off-stage voices, Tchaikovsky’s rich orchestration and vocal writing probably should have taken that more into consideration.

A modern solution for future productions, (of which I hope there will be many—my English translation gratis), would be to forget the back-stage and off-stage voice placement and send their sound through speakers from the ceiling of the house, even sending the separate vocal lines down from either side, antiphonally if you will. The audience should ideally hear surreal voices coming from heaven—and understand the words.

On that note, let me strongly advocate for performing operas in translation. Operatic puritans’ desire to preserve the musical sound of a composer’s work is admirable, but by opposing performances in translation, they often discount the verbal sound and deny “foreign” audiences a full appreciation of the drama in a work, especially so in this one. As a Russian scholar, I observe that with its intensely poetic language (i.e., twisted word order and obscure, stylized vocabulary—not to mention some wild musical calisthenics on important words), Tchaikovsky’s Russian libretto for “Joan of Arc” verges on the unintelligible even for native speakers of that language. In some respects, the composer seems to have chosen to rely on the visual scenes (Pictures) to suggest most of the theater in his work and considered the verbal fine points of the drama as more or less negligible.

Yet, Joan’s drama is the truly grand part of this grand opera. Like the angel voices, audiences deserve to comprehend fully her inspiration, heroism, moral anguish, triumph, and apotheosis. Her story is of vast import even for today: a woman of incredible strength and determination who literally saved her country, a powerful spirit who transcended medieval superstition and ignorance to achieve Sainthood—her true moral victory. All the more astounding for happening six centuries ago, Joan’s victory needs not be reduced to mere musical fireworks and orchestral magnificence. To convey all the grandeur, her glorious words should be readily comprehensible.

That’s why I’ve devoted creative energy to this amazing work for more than forty years. And that’s why I now urge opera companies in English-speaking countries everywhere to produce it—now readily available in translation—and to thrill us with the brilliance of Joan’s glory, as so beautifully done by the New Orleans Opera Association.

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Richard Balthazar is a former Russian scholar, arts administrator, and vendor of used plants, now happily retired as a writer and artist. He can be reached at rbalthazar@msn.com.                

 

Icon #18 – Xochipilli, Prince of Flowers

I’m proud to announce finishing my latest Aztec icon, #18: Xochipilli, Prince of Flowers—by the end of 2019.  Working in and around other projects, I spent 6 months on drawing it, rather longer than it took on any of the preceding 17 for the coloring book Ye Gods!  Small wonder…

Now that the basic drawing is done, I can at least offer a small version here for your wonder and amazement. To post it on the coloring book page, I’ll have to do a caption page with model images from the codices and get it turned into vectors for sizable printing.  All in good time…

Xochipilli, Prince of Flowers

No doubt you notice immediately that this icon is a lot different than the others. As a matter of fact, it’s seriously iconoclastic, breaking several of the canons of Aztec-codex iconography.  But first let me explain the elements.

As detailed in the Aztec Pantheon, XOCHIPILLI (Prince of Flowers) {sho-chee-peel-lee}, is a very appealing deity: the god of art, dance, laughter, happiness, beauty and peace, flowers, ecstasy, sleep, and dreams/hallucinations, as well as a god of fertility (agricultural produce and gardens).  Hence all the blossoms and vegetation which are far more intense and decorative than you’ll find in any of the codices.  That’s my first departure from the Aztec style, but I couldn’t pass up the perfect opportunity to indulge in floral display.

The Prince is also the patron of the sacred ballgame tlachtli (seen in the structure behind him), of the day Monkey (which cavorts by his left foot), and of homosexuals and male prostitutes.  In the cameos above and below the deity are his various lovers, a fairly polyamorous assortment.

Upper left is Opochtli, left-handed god of hunters; upper center is the Old Coyote, Huehuecoyotl (see also Icon #6), god of music, dance, and sex; and upper right is the god of writing, painting and song Chicome Xochitl, Seven Flower.

Lower right is the god of music, games, and feasting Macuil Xochitl, Five Flower; lower center is Pilzintecuhtli, the Young Lord, god of the planet Mercury; and lower left is the Prince’s twin sister-wife Xochiquetzal, the Flower Feather, goddess of love and female sexuality. As a note, I’m going use this cameo sketch of Xochiquetzal when I get to doing her icon.

The most iconoclastic feature of this icon is the figure of Xochipilli himself. In the codices, almost without exception, human figures are presented in profile, but my Prince is seen here full-frontal with only his face in profile.  His intentionally sensual posture is an echo of much earlier Maya iconography.  The angle of his chair/seat and new perspectives on his limbs, feet, and etc. forced me be fairly realistic in drawing the physical details.  (See that right hand and his un-Aztec eye!)

The most subtle element of this icon is that Xochipilli is also the patron of the number seven. With the god in his circular wreath of flowers as a central “dot,” the six cameos around him comprise that numeral.  My only regret is that I couldn’t find a way to include a procession (as shown in Codex Magliabechiano) with a little guy blowing on a conch-shell trumpet:

Conch-shell Trumpeter

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