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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Giovanna D’Arco, Opera in a prologue and three acts (1845)
Libretto by Temistocle Solera loosely based on Schiller’s drama Die Jungfrau von Orleans.
First performed at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 15 February 1845
Carlo VII. King of Spain, Vincenzo La Scola (ten); Giacomo, a shepherd in Dom-Rémy, Renato Bruson (bar); Giovanna D’Arco, his daughter, Susan Dunn (sop); Delil, an officer of the King, Pierre Lefebvre (ten); Talbot, commander of the English army, Francesco Lodetti (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Communale di Bologna/Riccardo Chailly
rec. live, Teatro Communale Bologna, December 1989
Produced by Radio Italiana in association with NVC ARTS
Stage producer Werner Herzog. Designer, Henning von Gierke
Video direction, Werner Herzog in association with Keith Cheetham
Picture format: NTSC 4:3.Colour. Linear–PCM stereo.
Subtitles in English, German, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Japanese
WARNER MUSIC VISION DVD VIDEO 9031-71478-2 [126:00]

Giovanna D’Arco is Verdi’s seventh opera. It was premiered a mere four months after I Due Foscari and six months before Alzira. These were the years that Verdi was later to call his ‘period in the galleys’. Not only was he composing but also presenting revivals in various theatres throughout Italy. Whilst his first four operas had been premiered at La Scala, his fifth was first seen in Venice and his sixth in Rome. Both had been successful, helped by the librettos produced by Piave who worked hand in glove with the composer who had an instinctive theatrical sense.  Although he always felt himself indebted to Merelli, the La Scala impresario who had given him his first opportunities and stuck with him through the dark days of the failure of Un Giorno Di Regno, Verdi had been reluctant to go back to La Scala with a new work. Merelli was a very warm-hearted and generous man, but a pretty lousy impresario. Far too often singers dictated what went on. This even involved the insertion of arias, other than by the composer of the work on stage, in order to show off their strengths or to give greater weight to a part that they considered not commensurate with their status. Although little is known of the genesis of Giovanna D’Arco it seems that Verdi, perhaps under pressure from Merelli and his publisher Ricordi, agreed to compose another opera for La Scala in 1845 to make up for the loss of his services the previous year. This was despite the fact that the impresario would have the choice of singers, subject and librettist, as was the standard practice at La Scala.
 
The librettist chosen was Temistocle Solera who had produced the book for both Nabucco and I Lombardi. Solera, aware of copyright problems in France, was keen to state that his libretto had no connection with Schiller’s play, although the evidence of the libretto contradicts that. Verdi knew the play, but may have been reluctant to work on the subject as several others had done so already. During the composition, Verdi contracted to mount a revival of I Lombardi for the opening of the carnival season; problems began to gather. The orchestra was too small, the scenery and costumes were inadequate whilst the singers were inclined to take too many liberties. These were the singers scheduled to present Giovanna D’Arco. Despite a poor public response to the tenor, Giovanna D’Arco was well received and soon the street barrel organs were ringing to the prologue tune of Tu sei bella, the demons’ chorus that haunts Joan (Ch.5. part). As well as the stage and singer problems, Verdi’s relationship with Merelli became strained when the latter negotiated the sale of the full score without the composer’s knowledge. It was the end of a friendship. Verdi vowed never to set foot in the theatre or speak to Merelli again. A man who carried grudges, Verdi carried out his threat until the revised Simon Boccanegra was premiered at La Scala in 1881. The hatchet buried, La Scala premiered the four-act 1884 version of Don Carlo and Verdi’s two final operatic masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff.
 
Giovanna D’Arco is scored for three primo singers, soprano, tenor and baritone. It requires true Verdian voices, ones with the subtle combination of legato, the ability for a wide range of vocal expression and also the heft to convey the emotions of the roles being portrayed. None of the three principal characters, Joan herself, Carlo the King or her father Giacomo, are sketched, musically, in any great depth or complexity. The trio of soloists have to work really hard to make the roles anything other than ciphers. This may well account for the paucity of both staged and recorded performances. The only studio recording is that from EMI in 1972 with James Levine conducting and the trio of Montserrat Caballé, Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes. Levine’s conducting, particularly of the overture and chorus scenes, is too often harsh and metronomic.
 
In this performance the lilt, rhythmic pulse and elegant phrasing counterbalance the drive in the distinct parts of the long overture and make it immediately obvious that Riccardo Chailly is a more sympathetic Verdian than Levine (Ch.1). He is always supportive of his soloists without letting the dramatic impetus flag. As well as a conductor of this ideal nature, Giovanna D’Arco requires a staging to bring it alive and singers who can act. In this production the series of scenes are well conveyed by realistic sets, backdrops and strongly creative and evocative lighting. The costumes are of the appropriate epoch although there are one or two incongruities such as Joan is always seen in either white flowing robes or a similarly all enveloping sackcloth. The only sign of her and any armour, as befits the heroine of the story, is as she takes a sword at the rock, after the chorus of demons, and declares to Carlo and her father that she is the warrior maid who will lead them to glory (Ch. 6).  This may have been expediency as much as any other decision as Susan Dunn is, to say the least, a big girl who would have looked somewhat ridiculous in armour. She sings with full variety of tone and colour, excellent legato and a wide range of vocal expression. Regrettably her acted portrayal is not of this calibre. Far too often she depends on hand movement and stock operatic gestures although she does manage a little more animus in her aria Qui! Qui ..dove pui s’apre  and in the duet with Carlo as she hears the voices that he cannot (Chs 9-10). As Carlo Vincenzo La Scola is an even more wooden actor, whilst his singing has neither the variety of colour nor the vocal characterisation of his soprano partner. The video directors do what they can with the situation with predominantly mid-range shots rather than close-ups of bland faces. Just what is missing histrionically becomes particularly noticeable when the Giacomo of Renato Bruson is on the stage. He is a considerable singing actor who makes what can be got out of a role that Verdi fails to paint in with his usual deft hand, although the father-daughter duet is appropriately and characteristically tender (Ch. 15). The chorus, whether as soldiers or demons, sing strongly although why they had to have their heads partly hooded defeated me?
 
As I have already stated, staged or even concert performances of Giovanna D’Arco are rare to come by. I have never managed one in fifty years of opera-going and know of no staged performance in Britain in that time or further back. Despite my reservations as to the acting of two of the principals, this well staged and conducted performance has given me significantly greater insight into Giovanna D’Arco as well as more musical enjoyment than the earlier audio recording. I have no doubt it will do the same for others and I strongly recommend it on that basis.
 
Robert J Farr
 

 

 



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