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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Giovanna D’Arco - Lyric Drama in a prologue and three acts. (1845)
Carlo VII, King of France– Francesco Meli (tenor); Giacomo, a shepherd – Plácido Domingo (baritone); Giovanna D’Arco, his daughter – Anna Netrebko (soprano); Delil, an officer of the King – Johannes Dunz (tenor); Talbot, commander of the English army – Roberto Tagliavini (bass)
Vienna Philharmonic Choir
Munich Radio Orchestra/Paolo Carignani
rec. live, Salzburg Festival, August 2013
Booklet essay: English, German, French
Full libretto: Italian (original language); English, German, French translations
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4792712 [64.44 + 44.05]

Giovanna D’Arco was Verdi’s seventh opera. It was premiered at La Scala on 15 February 1845 and followed Ernani and I Due Foscari which were first performed in Rome and Venice respectively the previous year. The opera is based on Schiller’s play Die Jungfrau von Orleans, the libretto being written by Solera. It was Verdi’s fifth opera for La Scala. However, Verdi was growing disenchanted with the standards of the Milan theatre. In his view the orchestra was too small, the scenery and costumes inadequate and the singers inclined to take too many liberties. Despite a poor public response to the tenor, Giovanna D’Arco was in fact very well received and soon the street barrel organs were ringing to the prologue tune of Tu sei bella, the demons’ chorus that haunts Joan (CD 1 Tr.11). As well as the stage and singer problems, Verdi’s relationship with the Intendant, Merelli, became further 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 La Forza del Destino was premiered at La Scala on 27 February 1869. The hatchet buried, La Scala premiered the four-act 1884 version of Don Carlo and Verdi’s two final operatic masterpieces, Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893).

The cast of the premiere contained one other singer that Verdi might have questioned in addition to the tenor. Given the nature of the sopranos in his previous operas, roles all veering towards the spinto, he might have found fault with the lighter-voiced Erminia Frezzolini. As the accompanying booklet essay by Verdi scholar Roger Parker notes, she, then at the peak of her powers, whilst having little power in her lower register, had beauty of tone and impressive agility in the high register. Verdi accommodated her strengths superbly, notably in the cavatina of act one (CD1 Trs.8-9), and later in the father-daughter duet that opens act three (CD2 Trs.8-11). Despite questioning her coloratura, I had been impressed by Anna Netrebko’s 2005 performance in Willy Decker’s La Traviata at Salzburg in 2005. I noted the vocal changes evidenced by her luscious Leonora in Il Trovatore at Salzburg in the same year as this recording (review) and approached her appearance in this live performance with particular interest. Her overall increase in vocal sumptuousness was welcome in parts but she does not erase memories of Caballé’s all-round assumption on the 1973 EMI Classics recording.

Of the two male principals, Plácido Domingo as Giovanna’s father is unsteady at the start. Whilst better than his Di Luna in the Il Trovatore referred to above he is simply not up to meeting the demands of a Verdi baritone role. Certainly, he sings in tune and characterises well and steadies up. This is welcome and quite unlike the disastrous Renato Bruson in the second of his video examples where his vibrato is intrusive (review). There are times when I think Domingo could still sing the tenor Carlo better than Francesco Meli who was a late replacement in the role. Italianate in tone, Meli lacks vocal character and tends to squeeze the climactic note at the end of a verse or phrase.

On the rostrum, Paolo Carignani handles the opening orchestral prelude (CD 1. Tr.1) and the choral interludes with welcome and appropriate Verdian vibrancy. He holds the performance together well throughout. As noted above, the booklet has an introductory essay in English, German and French along with a full libretto in Italian with translations in the same languages.

Despite Levine’s rather frenetic conducting on his 1973 EMI Classics recording where he benefits from a trio of some of the best Verdi singers of their generation, all approaching the height of their powers, I still consider it as first choice in this opera. As well as Domingo singing in his proper tenor register as Carlo, he was, with Sherrill Milnes, the genuine article as a Verdi baritone. Caballé is in ethereal form (EMI Classics 763226 2). The Dux live recording is not saved by the vibrant conducting, the soloists being provincial routine at best (review). On video Bruson’s first recording alongside Susan Dunn and Vincenzo La Scola under Chailly recorded in 1989 is by far the best despite being only in 4:3 aspect (review).

Robert J Farr