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Tchaikovsky's 'The Maid of Orleans'

It sounds like a recipe for operatic disaster. First you choose an obscure opera by a composer best known for symphonies and concertos. Then you bring in a 70-year-old soprano to sing the lead role — a familiar, historical character who is supposed to be a teenager!

The result is a guaranteed, box-office flop, right? Not necessarily — not if the soprano is legendary for her intelligence and artistic integrity as well as her voice, and not if the opera is by one of the most popular of all romantic composers, Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky.

That's the combination the Washington National Opera and its General Director, Placido Domingo, put onstage at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and it was a rousing success. The opera was Tchaikovsky's The Maid of Orleans, which tells the story of Joan of Arc. The soprano was one of the greatest of her generation, Mirella Freni.

When Freni arrived in Washington to portray Joan, her career had already spanned 50 years. She was still sounding great, still much in demand, and was still exploring new roles — including Joan of Arc.

As it turned out, the production was far more than a critical success and a box-office smash. Though they didn't know it at the time, Kennedy Center audiences had witnessed operatic history. Afterward, Freni retired from the stage, making the Washington National Opera's Maid of Orleans her final opera production. NPR's World of Opera gives Freni's countless fans a chance to hear it, and her, one more time.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.