DOLORA ZAJICK as Tchaikovsky’s “Joan of Arc”

An Encore by San Francisco Opera and Classical Radio KDFC 102.1

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Copyright © 2007 San Francisco Sentinel

Five hundred seventy six years ago today, May 30th, 1431 – in the town of Rouen, France – the Catholic Church chained 19-year-old Jeanne D’Arc to a tall pillar and then set her on fire. When the flames died out, the officials gathered up her charred bones and organs, along with the ashes of the pillar and platform, and re-kindled it to a toasty glow. To be sure the victim was most sincerely dead, a third burning was ordered. Whatever powders remained were meticulously swept up and then tossed into the Seine.

This Sunday at 8:00 PM, Classical Radio KDFC 102.1 will broadcast a live recording of San Francisco Opera’s 2006 summer production of Tchaikovsky’s MAID OF ORLÉANS. In the title role, dramatic mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick. The production was one of three in the series lovingly described as “Return Of The Divas”. A former Adler Fellow, Ms. Zajick basks in the glow of being one of the most magnificent mezzo-sopranos of our time. Last July in Dolores Park for “Opera In The Park”, Ms. Zajick favored her admirers with Leonora’s aria (in the original French), “O mon Fernand”, from Donizetti’s challenging “La Favorite”. Dolora Zajick twinkles even in the overcast skies of a chilly July afternoon. Make a date this Sunday with the diva, the San Francisco Opera, and KDFC. I am happy to once again present my review of her sparkling performance as “Joan of Arc”, filed December 12th, 2006.

THE MAID OF ORLEANS – A Simmering Success

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Sts. Michael, Margaret and Catherine’s advice to Joan of Arc (DOLORA ZAJICK, Mezzo-Soprano) – SAVE FRANCE!!!

Tchaikovsky’s THE MAID OF ORLÉANS is on fire at the San Francisco Opera. In this second offering of the Summer Series – “Return of the Divas” – it is dramatic mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick who takes on the title role of the legendary Joan of Arc. An internationally recognized star, Ms. Zajick possesses a magnificent voice, commanding in its overall strength – beautifully balanced from the resounding bass of her lower range, passing easily through the warmth of the middle register, and soaring up to her treble which trumpets high above the orchestra – piercing through every collected ensemble. A former Merola Opera Program participant and Adler Fellow, Ms. Zajick includes in her performance and recorded repertoire the great mezzo heroines of Verdi, the coloratura of “Adalgisa” in Bellini’s Norma, and Saint-Saens powerfully seductive and emasculating “Delilah”. Combining separate gifts of brute dynamism, lyrical agility, and feminine mystique, Dolora Zajick brings sense and sensibility to Tchaikovsky’s rather odd portrait of the virgin martyr and savior of 15th Century France.

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Save your country!

Director Chris Alexander and set designer Robert Dahlstrom deliver a noble attempt in their collaborative efforts to bring relevance and palpability to a work identified as Tchaikovsky’s contribution to French Grand Opera. As such, his Maid Of Orleans contains all the expected components: gargantuan situations and valiant characters, continuous music including recitative rather than spoken dialogue, multiple acts – in this case, a series of extended tableaux, spectacular production values and dazzling special effects, grand processions, and the obligatory ballet.

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Tchaikovsky’s MAID OF ORLEÁNS, at the San Francisco Opera

Keeping in its tradition of a raked center-stage platform with side areas reserved for a narrative chorus, along with stage-width panels and hanging pillars separating heaven and earth and the nobility from the gentry – the look and feel is somewhat similar to a church pageant or miracle play. The wardrobe of the Chorus is contemporary, ranging from very casual to business attire – the typical picture at most Sunday Morning services. The main characters are beautifully decked-out in period wardrobe by designer Walter Mahoney; heavenly figures treated to the judicially provençal, and three adorable small-fry-angels flounce in (maybe their first!) gossamer and snowy-white ballet dresses.

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Rod Gilfry, Dolora Zajick, and Misha Didyk

Lighting designer Robert Hill (and a few extra boosts from the orchestra under the baton of conductor Donald Runnicles) produced spectacular bolts of lightning – unambiguous evidence that Joan is in league with the Devil, her alleged gifts and accomplishments founded and refined in the fires of Hell, along with her impure thoughts toward the comely Burgundian knight, “Lionel” (charming baritone Rod Gilfry). In this libretto fashioned by Tchaikovsky, Joan has no trial scene, no damning conviction from ecclesiastical authority. Thus, with a sudden change in the weather and several untimely strikes of lightning – BAM! – Joan is consigned to the stake and burned. Historians reveal that the remaining bits of platform and corpse were gathered and burned twice more, lest anything wind up on eBay.

In the final moments of Joan’s immolation, with great luck and daring imagination, the super-abundant amount of dry ice and steam (ablaze in red light) billowing from a trap door swirled straight up the tall stake and beyond into the rafters. It was spectacular. A tiny girl steps forward from the holocaust and walks slowly down stage. It is the innocent soul of the Maid of Orleans stepping into the promised bliss of Eternity.

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The Immolation of Jeanne D’Arc

So Tchaikovsky. So French. So over-the-top.

THE MAID OF ORLÉANS is fraught with problems. But Tchaikovsky provides wondrous opportunities for his singers. Special mention must be given to baritone Philip Cutlip in the role of “Dunois”. Alongside his larger fellow baritones and basses, Mr. Cutlip’s baritone is strong and consistently clear. He is fortunate in that his abilities as a Leading Man are easily recognized and engaged by such companies as Opera Birmingham for the title role in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and the Seattle Opera for “Marcello” in La Boheme.

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Sean Panikkar, Peter Strummer, Philip Skinner, and Dolora Zajick. Production Photos by Terrence McCarthy

Bass-baritone Philip Skinner as Joan’s father, “Tibaut”, is a graduate from the Merola Opera Program and former Adler Fellow. Familiar to General Director David Gockley from his previous association with the Houston Grand, Mr. Skinner’s roles there include the four villains in THE TALES OF HOFFMANN and Mozart’s “Figaro”. Perhaps next Summer Season will see him in a “Return of the Divos”. Current Adler Fellow Sean Panikkar proved a very tempting and romantic tenor in his role as “Raymond”, the rejected suitor to the distracted Joan. Soprano Karen Black, also an Adler Fellow and Merola Graduate, heard the “Bravas” during her curtain call as “Agnes Sorel”, faithful mistress to the King. (Apparently the sky god sympathizes with the frustrations of an unhappy marriage.)

If you are a fan of Tchaikovsky’s ballets SWAN LAKE and SLEEPING BEAUTY, you will surely recognize their kinship with his MAID OF ORLEANS. The Gay Russian composer was at his best with the fantastical, with swords of virtue and shields of truth, with demons and fairy-angels, forbidden love and Eternal longing. This “Joan of Arc”, longs for our own fiery superstar – Dolora Zajick .

See Seán’s current articles and interviews:
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LE PETIT TRIANON – San Francisco Artists Exhibit at Her Majesty’s Pleasure
LA VIE EN ROSE (La Môme) – Biography of Edith Piaf – A Sensation at the 50th San Francisco International Film Festival
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San Francisco Sentinel’s Fine Arts Critic Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Ask him a question on AllExperts.com . If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: seanmartinfield@att.net.

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