The story of Joan of Arc has been the basis of several operas.
Before Verdi’s attempt Pacini, Balfe, Johann Vesque von
Püttingen and several others, just as forgotten, were inspired
by it. Later Tchaikovsky was more successful and his The
Maid of Orleans is the sole survivor unless Verdi should
also be counted.
The Verdi has never been regularly performed but there have
been both concert versions and fully staged performances. In
1951 it was recorded in Milan in connection with a broadcast
and the cast is mouth-watering: Renata Tebaldi, Carlo Bergonzi
and Rolando Panerai (Melodram 27021). In 1972 EMI set it down
in London with another starry trio: Montserrat Caballé,
Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes. James Levine conducted
what I believe was his first opera recording.
The reasons why Giovanna is such a rare guest in the
opera houses may be twofold: this was in the middle of a hectic
period in Verdi’s life when commissions for new operas
poured in. After Ernani, premiered on 9 March 1844, he
wrote I due Foscari, premiered on 3 November the same
year. Thereupon he immediately sank his teeth into the libretto
for Giovanna d’Arco, which was staged at La Scala
on 15 February 1845. Before the year was over he had also seen
one more opera being staged, Alzira on 12 August. With
this intense tempo it seems plausible that he had no time for
subtleties and innovations. However, the music isn’t bad
and his sense of dramatic development and catchy melodies is
undiminished. This is good early Verdi. Solera’s libretto,
on the other hand, has little to commend it. Loosely based on
Schiller’s Die Jungfrau von Orleans from 1801 the
plot is rather messy but Verdi managed to create several scenes
of outstanding musical and dramatic quality.
The story is briefly as follows: We are in France around 1429.
The English are preparing an attack and Carlo (Charles VII)
goes at night to a statue of the Mother of God to lay his sword
there. Giovanna (Joan of Arc) has been praying for her occupied
homeland and has then fallen asleep. In a dream she hears angels
who tell her to defend her country. When she wakes she takes
the king’s sword and declares her resolution. The king
is enthralled and they leave together. Her father, Giacomo,
who has been watching them from a distance, believes that she
is possessed by demons. Under the command of Giovanna the French
defeat the English and Giovanna confesses that she is in love
with Carlo. Outside the Cathedral of Reims Giacomo accuses his
daughter of blasphemy and a thunderclap seems to confirm this
to be the truth. Giovanna doesn’t understand the accusation.
She is captured and handed over to the English. When Giacomo
hears her prayers he realizes that he was mistaken. She is released
and returns to the battlefield, where she saves the king - and
the country - but Giovanna is killed.
There is a good, three-part overture, several good arias and
a truly masterly finale to act II, which opens with an a
cappella chorus. Then follows a big ensemble with chorus
and the three main characters. There is also a duet scene opening
the third act with Giovanna and Giacomo. Father-daughter duets
often drew the best from Verdi: Luisa Miller, Rigoletto,
Traviata, Simon Boccanegra and Aida. This
early example is in that league.
Wrocław may not be one of the top-ranked opera-houses of
the world but they have an excellent orchestra and ditto chorus.
Ewa Michnic, a one-time student with Hans Swarowsky in Vienna,
has a wide repertoire with more than 95 operas. She is the first
woman in Europe to have conducted the whole of Wagner’s
Der Ring des Nibelungen. 1981-1995 she was General and
Artistic Director of the Kraków Opera and since 1995
she has held the same office in Wrocław. For Dux she has
previously recorded Moniuszko’s Halka and Orefice’s
Chopin. The latter will be reviewed here before long.
Michnik has a firm grip on Verdi’s score, chooses sensible
tempos throughout and makes the most of the highpoints.
Of the three main soloists Anna Lichorowicz as Giovanna is rather
uneven. Her first solo, the cavatina Sempre all’ alba
(CD 1 tr. 9) is squally. Having in the late 1960s seen Anna
Moffo’s creamy reading this was disappointing. She is
better in her second appearance (CD 1 tr. 17-18). In the duet
with Giacomo (CD 2 tr. 7-10) she improves further. Best of all
is the final scene of the opera.
The Russian tenor Nikolay Dorozhkin’s operatic roles are
eclectic to say the least, ranging from baroque (Cavalli’s
La Didone) to Radames in Aïda. His
voice is today a typical tenore robusto, strong, heroic
and unsubtle. His tone is steady and well-focused and occasionally
he even essays something softer than fortissimo. His
solo in the last act, Quale più fido amico is
delivered with feeling and a plaintive quality; one thinks of
The real hero of this performance - vocally that is - is Mariusz
Godlewski. Here is a singer with beautiful tone and sensitive
phrasing. His aria and cabaletta in act I (CD 1 trs. 15-16)
is well sung. Better still is his aria in act II (CD 2 tr. 2).
Generally the baritone has the best music. The aforementioned
father-daughter duet in act III should be heard, both for the
music itself and for the singing.
The recording is first class and there is a short but informative
note on the music and a synopsis. My only regret is that there
is no translation of the libretto.
The opera is better than its reputation and the present recording,
in spite of some less than first class singing, gives more than
a hint of this. Giacomo is good throughout. Carlo, though often
rather unsubtle, has spinto qualities and Giovanna has her moments
of good singing.
I haven’t heard the Tebaldi/Bergonzi/Panerai recording
but have seen some rave reviews. The sound quality, though,
is reportedly terrible. The Caballé/Domingo/Milnes recording
is also forty years old by now but it wears its years lightly.
The singing is glorious but the conducting rather hard-driven.
Still, it is the best all-round version.