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Parma Verdi Festival, Giovanna d’Arco: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus Teatro Regio di Parma. Conductor. Bruno Bartoletti. Festival Verdi. Teatro Regio di Parma. 7.10.2008 (JMI)

New Production.
Director: Gabriela Lavia
Sets: Alessandro Camera.
Costumes: Andrea Viotti.
Lighting: Andrea Borelli.



Giovanna d’Arco: Svetla Vassileva, soprano
Carlo VII: Evan Bowers, tenor
Giacomo: Devid Cecconi, baritone

Giovanna d'Arco is the seventh opera by Verdi, who had only a short time in which to compose it in order to fulfil his commitment to La Scala. It is therefore  one of the operas of the so called ‘galley’ years  and, as with many operas from this early period, it is very rarely performed.  Although this is the subject of much debate, Giovanna d’Arco is in my opinion one of Verdi's least inspired works. It is well constructed, but it lacks moments which remain in the memory. Perhaps the best known piece of the opera is the chorus “Tu sei bella, pazzerella”, which is no more than incidental within the opera.

Verdi uses the libretto by Temistocle Solera, based on Schiller’s Die Jungfrau von Orleans, where Joan of Arc is not burned at the stake, but is freed from jail to fight again leading the French troops, eventually dying on the battlefield and then more or less ascending to Heaven. This ending is  of course historically inaccurate since the trial and death of France’s patron saint is well documented. Nevertheless, Schiller preferred to do it his way and this is the plot that Verdi follows in his opera, as does Tchaikowsky years later.

The composition of this opera took place at a time when Verdi was seen by the Italians as the musical voice of their independence and this Giovanna d'Arco follows the same line of thinking. The French in this production represent the Italian people,  with Jeanne d’Arc as Garibaldi, and the English invaders as the Austrian empire. This idea “risorgimentale” is what serves as the starting point for the production by the Italian film director Gabriele Lavia, who  shows a painted curtain displaying a cavalry charge with a profusion of Italian flags at the beginning. This ‘curtain’ turns out to be a series of mobile panels that move very easily and serve as sets in many of the scenes.

Lavia’s production is the most interesting part of this performance, in particular his portrayal of the protagonist, whom he presents as a girl full of doubts and ambiguities.  The set changes are done very fast, with the moving panels and the addition of  some non-static elements, in a way perfectly suited to the action. The scenes in the forest are beautiful  with wonderful lighting. Perhaps the coronation scene is less convincing, seeming more appropriate to Don Carlo’s auto da fe than anything else. Very rich and varied costumes complete this appealing production.

The veteran Bruno Bartoletti (82) was in charge of the musical direction and it was a surprise to see how much energy he can still bring to his work. Bartoletti is somehow successor to the great Italian opera conductors, like Serafín, Votto and Gavazzeni, to name only a few. He conducted with good rhythm and I found myself wondering what might happen to this opera in the hands of a less experienced conductor. Yet again there was a very good performance from both  the Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Regio.

As  is usual with early Verdi, the problem often lies in finding a good cast, since today's opera stars are not interested in singing this repertoire. Casting is made even more difficult because this opera also needs three very fine singers.

Parma's protagonist Giovanna was the Bulgarian soprano Svetla Vassileva, whose interpretation was very convincing: she lived the character with great intensity at every moment. Vocally she was perhaps a little short in meeting the the demands of the role, mainly in the bottom register, aalthough there were a few high notes which were somewhat tight and shrill. It was announced prior to the performance that Ms Vassileva was indisposed, but this was not discernible, and probably had more to do with the problems she had had at the premiere when she faced some isolated and unjustified booing from the “loggione”.

King Carlo VII was Evan Bowers, who was weak in the role. He is a tenor with a timbre which is not particularly  attractive, and he has a serious problem with vocal projection as well as shortening the longer notes and sounding insecure at the top. He had his first vocal problems in his big Act I scene. If he looked better on stage  and were a more outstanding actor, the overall effect might have been different.

Renato Bruson cancelled  after singing the premiere, and was replaced as Giacomo, Giovanna’s father, by Devid Cecconi. The truth is that he saved the performance by portraying his charcater with great dignity. He has a good and robust voice too and he sang remarkably well at times. His only problem lies with his top register, which is not especially well projected.

There was a warm final reception, with Bartoletti and Cecconi receiving much applause. Ms Vassileva was also very well rewarded.

Jose M.Irurzun

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