The Story of 'The Maid of Orleans' The story of Joan of Arc has inspired creative artists for centuries, including Tchaikovsy in his opera The Maid of Orleans.
NPR logo The Story of 'The Maid of Orleans'

The Story of 'The Maid of Orleans'

Sergei Leiferkus is Lionel and Mirella Freni plays Joan of Arc, in The Maid of Orleans from the Washington National Opera. Photo: Karin Cooper hide caption

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Photo: Karin Cooper

Joan of Arc, sung by Mirella Freni, is acclaimed as a visionary and a hero, but ultimately executed for heresy. Photo: Karin Cooper hide caption

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Photo: Karin Cooper

In the opera's final scene, Joan meets a fiery death after being condemned as a heretic. Photo: Karin Cooper hide caption

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Photo: Karin Cooper

BACKGROUND: Tchaikovsky based his opera on a play called The Maid of Orleans by the German writer Friedrich Schiller. The composer was convinced that his own version of the story would, "be the one to make my name popular." That never happened. The Maid of Orleans was the first of Tchaikovsky's operas to be performed outside Russia, but his operas The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin are both heard far more often.

The Maid of Orleans tells the story of Joan of Arc, the 15th-century French heroine who freed the citizens of Orleans, led French troops in glorious victories over the English, and helped Charles VII to be crowned King.

Through the centuries, her story has been retold by countless poets, composers, film and TV directors, and even in a book by Mark Twain. Giuseppe Verdi's opera Joan of Arc premiered in 1845. Tchaikovsky's version came some 35 years later.

Act 1: A group of young village women are in the midst of a celebration when they are scolded by Thibaut, Joan of Arc's father. He says there's no cause for frivolous behavior while France is at war with England. A peasant named Bertrand warns that the English are prepared to attack. People begin to assemble, including the young man Raymond. Thibaut tells Joan that Raymond might just make a suitable husband.

Joan isn't listening. She says she has a higher calling, telling her father that God himself has given her a mission. Thibaut suspects that his daughter is possessed. Joan predicts the demise of the attacking English commander, and almost immediately a French soldier arrives and confirms it. The crowd acclaims Joan as a prophet, but her father still suspects the devil is at work. Joan leads a hymn of thanks, then sings farewell to the hills and fields of her homeland.

Act 2: The setting has changed to the castle of King Charles VII. He tries to forget the worrisome war by lounging in the company of his court jesters and daydreaming about Agnes, his mistress. Dunois, one of the King's knights, tells Charles to forget about Agnes and mount a counter-attack against the English.

A chorus praising Joan is heard in the distance. She has just led French troops to a great victory. When Joan appears before the king, she proves her prophetic gift by reciting the king's own prayers. She also reveals her strange story. She says the holy virgin appeared to her, saying that Joan would be the savior of France. The king is persuaded to entrust Joan with his army, and Joan is blessed by the Archbishop.

Act 3: Joan is leading troops on the battlefield when she encounters Lionel, a Burgundian knight who has chosen to fight with the English. He and Joan face each other down, and Joan gets the upper hand. But as she's about to kill him, Joan catches her first look at Lionel's face. It's love at first sight for both of them. Lionel surrenders, and asks to switch sides and fight for the French.

In the next scene, the victorious Joan leads King Charles to his coronation. Her own father, the devout Thibaut, still believes that her purported "heavenly calling" is actually the work of Satan. In front of the assembled crowd, he demands to know if Joan is truly, "pure and Holy." Joan knows she's not controlled by the devil but she still feels guilty about her worldly passion for Lionel. She refuses to answer the question, and the people turn against her. Lionel urges her to flee but she turns on him, saying he is the cause of her troubles. As the act ends, Joan is banished.

Act 4: Joan is alone in the forest, distraught. She can't overcome her love for Lionel. He joins her, but as they embrace Joan hears heavenly voices. They condemn Joan for her passion for Lionel, and say she can redeem herself only through martyrdom. She and Lionel are then surprised by a patrol of English soldiers. Lionel is killed, and Joan is taken captive.

In the final scene, Joan has been condemned and is led to the stake. At first, an angry mob denounces her as a sorceress. But eventually the people are won over by her calm bearing, and ethereal expression, while in the face of death. As the pyre is lit, and the flames grow around her, angels are heard, inviting Joan to join them in heaven.