The mid-twentieth-century opera, “The Trial at Rouen,” tells the story of the final days of St. Joan of Arc, her imprisonment, and trial for heresy. Composer Norman Dello Joio employs themes of conscience, belief, and spiritual motivation; he makes us think about the consequences of institutional corruption and the power of individuals to rise above it, and how God can redeem the darkest situations.
Television has been much disparaged over the years, yet it can—and has—served as a fine cultural medium. Consider that there was a time when you could tune in to TV to hear the premiere of a major opera. Incredible now, perhaps, but such was the case in the 1950s when NBC Opera Theatre presented both traditional and new works live over the airwaves (Gian Carlo Menotti’s Christmas classic Amahl and the Night Visitors was one early presentation). When in 1955 the network approached Norman Dello Joio with a commission for a 75-minute opera, the American composer saw a chance to refine his ideas about his favorite saint.
A native New Yorker of Italian parentage, Dello Joio (1913-2008) was one of the leading American composers of his generation. He had started out as a church organist, like his father and grandfather before him, and although he appears to have gone his own way in matters of faith, Catholic influences remained pervasive in his work. Of all those influences, none was more prominent than St. Joan of Arc. Dello Joio discovered her story when he was twelve, pouring over a picture book of the saints in the organ loft of Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in the Bronx. St. Joan proved a lifelong inspiration, first manifesting itself in the opera The Triumph of St. Joan, which was presented in a student production at Sarah Lawrence College in 1950. Although it was successful enough, Dello Joio was dissatisfied and withdrew it from further performances. He still did not feel he had captured his subject.
Of course, Dello Joio was following an illustrious line of artists in all media who had dealt with the mystery of Joan of Arc down the centuries. So many were affected by the astounding nature of her life story—a 14-year-old peasant girl who heard heavenly voices and ended up leading the army of France to victory—but also by the way she behaved later in the courtroom, holding fast to the truth of her divine revelations while being assailed by enemies on every side.
It was this latter aspect of Joan that Dello Joio next tried to capture, and this time it brought him closer to the mark. The Trial at Rouen focuses on Joan’s final days, her imprisonment, and trial for heresy. All the events are consolidated into a single act in two long scenes. First, we are in the prison where Joan is being held after her capture by pro-English forces. Joan meets with her spiritual advisor, Father Julien, who counsels her to be patient and humble in the face of the authorities and curb her headstrong tendencies. Their scene reaches heights of religious passion as the two characters sing of their mutual faith: “I shall break the bonds of grief / Faith in God’s church shall set you free / The redeeming love of the Savior is the one true victory!”
Dello Joio wrote both the music and the libretto, which draws from authentic court records of Joan’s trial. The trial, although ostensibly for heresy, was politically motivated; Joan’s accusers were mostly English sympathizers. Her chief antagonist is the severe and haughty Pierre Cauchon, bishop of Beauvais, who emerges as an antithesis to the kindly Father Julien. Dello Joio is careful to avoid turning Joan’s accusers into caricatures. It would be easy to conceive a version of this story clouded with anti-Catholic sentiment. That is not what Dello Joio gives us. His portrayal is rounded and multidimensional. The inquisitors want Joan to renounce her visions (or more properly, voices) and admit that they came from the devil instead of from God. The libretto points out the conflict between the institutional structure that religion requires for solidity and the personal faith that gives it life. The inquisitors fear the social danger posed by private revelations and excessively subjective religious experiences. The trial becomes a battle of wills and emotions, both sides motivated by strong beliefs which are all given a say.
In fact, Joan comes across as willful and stridently nationalistic at times (at one point she says that the saints are all on the side of France!), and like all of us in need of salvation. The libretto emphasizes that the goal of the churchmen is to save Joan’s soul and bring her back into the community of the church from which they believe she has strayed (“the loving arms of Holy Mother Church will once again enfold you”). Horrified at the prospect of burning at the stake, she breaks down and recants—singularly, her words are spoken not sung, reflecting their coerced nature. However, at that moment Joan’s voices speak (i.e., sing) to her and make her understand that God wants her to find salvation through martyrdom (“Yours is the triumph, Joan of Lorraine, Yours the victory!”) Joan steps forward and tells Cauchon to “light the fire”:
“I have been blind,
It was to truth that I was summoned.
Now I understand what is meant by freedom.
I was wrong to confess that what I had done was not well.
It is God’s wish that I die through you.
I am content.
It brings me into the sight of our Lord…
I pray that I am worthy to die for you
And let my death reveal the aim of life.
O cleansing flames, you light my path to Him.”
Then Joan mounts the stake, not with anguish but with peace of soul, and the music of the orchestra seems, motivically, to reconcile the opposing forces of good and evil.
I have been quoting from Dello Joio’s libretto because it is remarkable in its simplicity and eloquence. There have not been many composers who have written their own librettos and excelled at it. Dello Joio limns themes of conscience, belief, and spiritual motivation; he makes us think about the consequences of institutional corruption and the power of individuals to rise above it, and how God can redeem the darkest situations.
And what does all of this sound like? Dello Joio’s style is surely one of the most personal and distinctive of his era. He wrote tonally, albeit an expanded tonality that allowed for expressive use of dissonance (as in the anguished parts of Joan’s trial scene). Modal harmonies and themes drawn from Gregorian chant lend his music a luminous spirituality. Above all, he had an innate feeling for melodic line, a result of his strong Italian-American heritage informed by such sources as Gregorian chant and opera. Dello Joio’s teacher Paul Hindemith told him never to forget that he was by nature a lyrical composer, advice that Dello Joio happily heeded. His music speaks directly and communicatively to the listener, yet retains an integrity and sophistication. There are the subtlest hints of American popular music and of Broadway. According to one commentator: “It is amusing, but not at all incongruous, to find Gregorian melodies and jazzy rhythms rubbing shoulders, for they are blended in a creatively spontaneous texture.” The mix of sacred and secular, ancient and modern, European and American is part of this composer’s essence. In The Trial at Rouen, Dello Joio’s text setting is expert and natural, his vocal writing expressive and dramatic. The orchestra participates fully in the atmosphere of the piece, and each of the persons of the drama is characterized distinctively through the vocal line and musical motifs. In his opera Dello Joio brilliantly extends the operatic tradition of Verdi and Puccini to encompass a mid-20th-century aesthetic and moral and spiritual concerns.
NBC Opera Theatre broadcast The Trial at Rouen on April 4, 1956 to an audience of millions, undoubtedly the biggest Dello Joio ever had during his career. A few years later he reworked the opera for a stage version at New York City Opera; then, as happens all too often to works of music, The Trial at Rouen passed into oblivion.
That is, until December 2017, when Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Opera Odyssey, specialists in resurrecting forgotten musical works, put on a single performance of the opera—semi-staged, without scenery but with costumes and minimal stage action. Soon afterward a recording was made, which has just now been released on the BMOP’s house label. Superbly sung and played, it also includes Dello Joio’s majestic Triumph of St. Joan Symphony (arranged from themes from his first St. Joan opera) and is a treasure to cherish.
One of the remarkable things about The Trial at Rouen—beyond the fact that such a masterpiece could have been unheard for so long—is the window it gives us into a time when a popular medium, television, could be used for elevated purposes, to convey messages of spiritual import and universal cultural meaning. Joan of Arc had undoubtedly a greater presence then (judging from the many film representations, for example), and Christianity and Catholicism were part of the public fabric. A serious artist could count on “the tube” as a worthy vehicle, and high art did not separate itself from life. A lost world, to be sure; but one we can relive through this wonderful opera.
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The featured image is “The Capture of Joan of Arc” (between 1847 and 1852) by Adolf Alexander Dillens (1821–1877) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.