Tuesday June 4th, 7:30 p.m.
JOAN OF ARC (Giovanna d'Arco)
An Opera in Three Acts and a Prologue
by Giuseppe Verdi (1813 - 1901)
libretto by Temistocle Solera
Premièred at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan on 15 February 1845
A 2015 production from the Teatro alla Scala
Direction by Mosche Leiser and Patrice Caurier
Set Design by Christian Fenouillat
Costume Design by Agostino Cavalca
Lighting Design by Christophe Forey
Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala
conducted by Riccardo Chailly
on 15 February 1845
A chorus of French soldiers and townspeople lament the poor fortunes of the war and curse the English who have invaded their land. Orleans is also under siege and is about to fall.
The French King Charles VII announces his intention to surrender to the enemy. He then gives an account of a dream that he has had of a voice telling him to place his helmet and sword at the foot of the image of the Virgin in a country chapel in the middle of the forest.
The townspeople observe that such an image exists in a wild, gloomy clearing nearby. The King decides to go there while some people try to dissuade him.
Giacomo, Giovanna's father, is secretly following her suspecting she has given her soul to the forces of Evil. Giovanna arrives to ask for a blessing and arms to fight for her country. She falls asleep.
Charles lays his helmet and sword before the chapel and kneels in prayer. Voices agitate Giovanna's sleep and awakening, she takes up Charles' arms with war-like enthusiasm.
The English have been defeated by the French army led by Giovanna. Giacomo is in a state of agitation. He promises the English to deliver the bold and guilty Giovanna into their hands.
Giovanna has come outside to escape the celebrations taking place in the palace. She is in love with the king and her turmoil is expressed simultaneously by the angelic and devilish voices heard earlier.
Giovanna decides to leave the court and return to her father in their humble village as the king arrives and the couple declare their love for each other.
The people gather to witness the coronation ceremony. After the triumphal march which accompanies the passing of the royal procession, Giacomo declares his intention to denounce Giovanna's guilt before all. From the cathedral a hymn is heard signalling the end of the ceremony, and soon Giovanna emerges followed by the king.
When Charles invites the people to pay homage to the saviour of France, Giacomo bursts out with his terrible accusation: Giovanna is impure and sacrilegious.
Charles invites Giocomo to provide proof of his allegations. Giovanna is asked to defend herself. Confused, she says nothing and her silence is taken as proof of her guilt.
Giovanna lies in prison in chains. Hearing the noise of the battle nearby, she begs God to allow her to run to the aid of the French for one last time.
Giacomo has overheard her prayer and understands that his accusations have been unjust. He frees his daughter and is reconciled with her, offering her his own sword.
Giovanna rushes out to join the battle.
Charles is once more victorious, thanks to Giovanna's help. However, shortly afterwards comes the news of the heroine's death, and a funeral march is played as her body is brought forward for all to see.
In reality, Giovanna is not yet dead and she cries her last words in an atmosphere of ecstatic rapture.
NEXT MEETING: Tuesday July 9
THE SUNKEN BELL (Respighi)
Respighi's operatic masterpiece in a 2016 Cagliari production that has been hailed for its brilliance and magnificent performances
Anna Netrebko as Giovanna d'Arco,
in full armour
Click here for a video (subtitled)
of Chailly, Caurier, Leiser, Netrebko and Meli introducing excerpts from this production
Luxury casting, exciting and stupendous
Fiona Maddocks enthused about this production in her review for The Guardian:
The score is rousing and vivid, the offstage band stirring, the vocal writing daring and dangerous, with an a cappella trio that makes wild demands – exceptionally well met – on the soloists. The orchestral colours are vibrant if at times brazen. Using Alberto Rizzuti’s 2008 critical edition, with all the cabaletta repeats, Chailly paid meticulous attention to every detail. Brass and woodwind were lithe, every string accompaniment shaped with minutely controlled hairpin crescendos and decrescendos, giving them urgency and imperative. The La Scala chorus and orchestra were tightly drilled and outstanding.
Leiser and Caurier, opting to explore the psychological state of both father and daughter, set the action in Giovanna’s bedroom. The designs, by Christian Fenouillat, crossed time zones from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, sometimes muddled in impact but handsome to look at despite some chaotic projections of battles, orgiastic incubi and repressed sensuality. The bed is present throughout, at one point sharing the stage with a fabulous, lifelike cathedral of Rheims – its high gothic flamboyance chiming with Milan’s own duomo – together variously with devils, angels, townsfolk, knights and a throng of halberdiers. Just what you want when you wake up.
Anna Netrebko has never been more exciting, at steely strength through her full range, spinning ornament with precision and elegance, and performing this uneasy role with febrile commitment. Feminine wiles play no part. Her only lust is to serve God and country. The Russian diva – one of the few who truly deserves that description – seemed unabashed by her Tin Man helmet or her gawky principal-boy-tunic appearance. Francesco Meli, covered head to foot in gold paint like a hybrid of Caligula and Dorothy’s Lion, was stupendous as Carlo, top notes ringing and scorching, the tone robust but with a fine, light gleam. Devid Cecconi as Giovanna’s father, Giacomo, was full of tenderness and lyricism. This was the kind of luxury casting a house like La Scala should but doesn’t always secure.
Joan of Arc, operatic heroine
Last month, we screened one of Tchaikovsky's operas. Like Verdi, Tchaikovsky also took the tale of Joan of Arc as the subject for another of his operas. In an Amazon review of the production we're screening this month, Dr John W. Rippon contrasts the two operas:
I have particular interest in Giovanna D'Arco because early on in my exploration of opera I became acquainted with Tchaikovsky's opera The Maid of Orleans based on the same Schiller play on which Verdi based his opera: Die Jungfrau von Orleans by Frederick Schiller, a long rambling highly romantic paean to freedom's fight against the mighty oppressors. The two operas were written many years apart: Verdi's in 1845 and Tchaikovsky's in 1881.
It is unlikely that Tchaikovsky knew of Verdi's work as Giovanna D'Arco did not travel much around the world outside of Italy and even there was not widely done. Tchaikovsky's Joan opera is a big expansive piece with nine major characters; a juicy bit about Agnes Sorel, mistress to the dauphin who will be Charles VII of France. This and the love affair of Joan and the Duke of Burgundy are not in the Verdi at all, which has only three major parts.
But the most emphatic difference in the two operas is in the ending. In the play and in the Tchaikovsky opera, Joan is declared a witch and sentenced to death by burning by the Roman Catholic church. In the Verdi she is absolved of the witchcraft charges by her father and allowed to go back into battle against the English, rescue the king and die a martyr. This ending would go over much better with the Roman Catholic audiences in Italy than the burning at the stake by the church in the Russian opera and the original play.