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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Giovanna d’Arco (1845) [128.00]
Svetla Vassileva (soprano) - Giovanna; Evan Bowers (tenor) - Carlo; Renato Bruson (baritone) - Giacomo; Maurizio lo Piccolo (bass) - Talbot; Luigi Petroni (tenor) - Delil
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Regio di Parma/Bruno Bartoletti
rec. Teatro Regio di Parma, 7 and 17 October 2008
extra: introduction to Giovanna d’Arco [10.00]
C MAJOR 721208 [138.00]

Shaw in his preface to Saint Joan was extremely rude about Schiller’s “witch’s cauldron of romance” which constituted his play The Maid of Orleans. “Schiller’s Joan”, he observed tartly, “has not a single point of contact with the real Joan, or indeed with any mortal woman that ever walked the earth. There is really nothing to be said of his play but that it is not about Joan at all, and can hardly be said to pretend to be; for he makes her die on the battlefield, finding her burning unbearable.” One can only imagine what he would have said about Verdi’s treatment of the subject - for although his librettist Temistocle Solera denied any connection with the Schiller play, his boiling-down of the subject has too many points of resemblance with it to be a mere coincidence. As it happens he would not even have been aware of the existence of the score, which was believed to have been lost (apart from the Overture) before it was revived for Renata Tebaldi in 1951. It didn’t reach the stage in London until a student production in 1966.
Solera’s adaptation reduces the story of Joan of Arc to a feeble and rather brief operatic plot, with only a very tangential reference to historical accuracy; but it does contain two elements which would strongly have appealed to the young Verdi. In the first place it continues the theme which runs so vibrantly through his early operas from his ‘galley years’, that of a nation struggling for freedom against an alien oppressor. Secondly it contains yet another of his portraits of a father and daughter at odds with each other and finally finding reconciliation. At the point in the coronation scene where father and daughter confront each other, Verdi’s music suddenly catches fire in a superb concertato and thereafter maintains a high level to the end. The opera was highly popular in the nineteenth century, but was frequently performed with a new plot and amended text under the title of Orietta di Lesbo, which would at least avoid any suggestion that the subject matter of the work was the career of Joan of Arc.
Be that as it may, Verdi hardly achieves in this score the mastery of his themes that was to characterise his later work. Much of the earlier music is frankly pretty vulgar, and the scene in which Joan is tempted by devils and encouraged by angels is laughably meretricious; the booklet quotes a particularly vituperative criticism of this passage by Hanslick. All of that said, the musical performance on this DVD is very good, and Bruno Bartoletti does what he can to tone down the insistent rum-ti-tum of the orchestra. In the opening scene Evan Bowers is a rather epicene Charles VII, but he sings with honeyed tone and produces a good effect. Svetla Vassileva as Joan has an attractively tomboyish look, and her quiet singing is raptly beautiful; but when she puts pressure on the voice, a juddering enters the tone which at times threatens to spill over into a positively Slavonic wobble. Renato Bruson has been around for many years, but his voice remains in good shape despite some occasional suggestions of wear. He produces a real character out of Joan’s father’s annoyingly unmotivated changes of mood and purpose. Both he and Vassileva make the most of their confrontation in the coronation scene, where their singing suddenly achieves a real Verdian momentum. The two other parts are hardly more than ciphers, but Maurizio lo Piccolo and Luigi Petroni acquit themselves well. The chorus, who have a great deal to do, are lustily full-throated and enthusiastic.
The production is pretty basic, but it gets all the characters in the right places at the right times and leaves them to sing, which is after all what early Verdi is all about. The costumes are authentically fifteenth century, and the scenery is properly atmospheric.
In his review of the original production in Opera magazine, George Loomis referred to Gabriele Lavia’s intention to draw parallels with the Italian Risorgimento, but these allusions are hardly noticeable in the video production as seen here. One listens in vain for audible evidence of the use of the harmonium in the chorus of demons, or for the ‘fisarmonica’ in the chorus of angels.
In a set which constitutes part of a historically informed series recording the complete operas of Verdi, it is slightly alarming to find the booklet note by Anselm Gerhard making reference at some length to an incident at the première of the opera at La Scala on “15 February 1841”. In fact the première took place some five years later; and the misquoted date is not simply a misprint, since it recurs in all four languages in the booklet. One other historical inaccuracy should also be noted. The DVD titles refer to the various scenes as Act One, Act Two, Act Three and Act Four; but in fact Giovanna d’Arco is described by Verdi as an opera in “a Prologue and Three Acts”.
We have hardly been blessed with a superfluity of recordings of Giovanna d’Arco. The only studio set is that by James Levine made some forty years ago - his first complete opera recording - but still available. There has been one previous DVD recording, a 1989 production by Werner Herzog (also with Bruson as Joan’s father) which is also still listed. I have not seen this performance since it first appeared on television over twenty years ago, but I do not recall the production as being anything special or as convincing as this. This DVD therefore has the field pretty much to itself, and it is a fully worthy representation of a frustratingly uneven work.
Paul Corfield Godfrey 

see also review of blu-ray version by Robert J Farr