The Maid of Orleans has always stood in the shadow of Tchaikovsky's other operas, and being presented with it has resulted in confusion, even among the composer's most ardent admirers. The authoritative Soviet music historian Boris Asafiev, for example, considered the work "masterful, though uneven", reprimanding its "false style" and "peculiar, pompous élan". The low evaluation of The Maid of Orleans can, to a great extent, be explained by its chronological proximity to (and inevitable comparison with) Tchaikovsky's most popular opera, Eugene Onegin. Following the lyrical "chamber scenes", here the composer unexpectedly turned to the genre of grand opéra with all its inherent attributes: a plot from an age of knights, a massive four-act structure, a ballet divertissement, the thunder of victory and fiery whirlwinds. Tchaikovsky was convinced of public acclamation, box-office success and of his "grand opéra" finding a stable place in the repertoire, though this was never fully achieved, either during the composer's lifetime or in the 20th century. One exception came with the Kirov Theatre's production in 1945 – its success to a large degree was down to Sofia Preobrazhenskaya, who appeared in the title role.
Succeeding a lengthy interval, last summer the Mariinsky Theatre staged a performance of The Maid of Orleans in concert and took the decision to bring it back to the stage, as the few generalised parts of the score are not a flaw but rather a nod of respect to the conditions of the genre of "grand opéra". Once one understands this, the merits of The Maid of Orleans become clear: the first-class music, the strong dramaturgy and the pathétique energy, rare in terms of its power. It towers above classical Russian operas, like the bulk of some Gothic cathedral – like that in Reims, here depicted in the final scene.
The opera is being restored to the repertoire of the theatre where it was staged for the first time one hundred and forty years ago. Back then, in 1881, Tchaikovsky was furious that no new designs had been produced for the premiere, instead borrowing the sets from other productions, and the new opus did not create the effect it ought to have done. Today the composer would be satisfied: in tandem with the designer Vyacheslav Okunev, director Alexei Stepanyuk has produced a true "grand spectacle". Moreover, the director was not content to be satisfied with a merely theatrical Gothic style: "We are not staging an historic opera 'about knights', but rather a romantic opera – a metaphysical one, even. Fire is the entire production's leitmotif, a symbol of all-consuming flame in which our whole world perishes with its madness of wars and hatred. And, with her saintly smile, the Maid of Orleans towers above these flames."