VERDI Giovanna d’Arco (Chailly)
Giovanna d’Arco stems from Verdi’s ‘galley years’. Composed for La Scala in 1845, it’s full of great melodies even if it doesn’t hit the same dramatic heights as Nabucco or Macbeth, largely due to Temistocle Solera’s weak libretto, diluting Schiller’s drama Die Jungfrau von Orleans down to Giovanna’s love for the Dauphin Carlo and her denunciation as a witch by her father, Giacomo. As in Schiller, Giovanna isn’t burnt at the stake but perishes on the battlefield, having saved the king’s life. The opera isn’t performed much – I recall Philip Prowse’s vivid, stylised production for the Royal Opera in 1996 – but, almost simultaneously, here come two stagings from Italy: La Scala, where the opera was premiered, and Parma, home to the Verdi Festival – two houses whose unforgiving loggionisti guard Verdi’s heritage jealously.
Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s production was the 2015 16 season-opener at La Scala. They depict the opera as a 19th-century girl’s delirious hallucinations, watched over by her concerned father. The chorus appear without, peering into her room, while busy videography is displayed in the panels above including, at one point, what looks like a weeping Verdi. Carlo VII enters her dream clad in gold from head to toe, including a gleaming spray-tan giving him a comic, rather than regal, appearance, like Star Wars’ C 3PO making his operatic debut. Giovanna dons the king’s armour and brandishes his sword as she leads the French on to the battlefield – plenty of slo mo action here – and the cross she hugs is inverted to become the stake to which she is strapped. The decisive battle takes place in Giovanna’s head, Giacomo narrating events. Reims Cathedral rises magnificently through her bedroom, as does Carlo (on a golden horse). Video imagery suggests that Giovanna is erotically drawn to Carlo, and when they grapple on her bed, they are engulfed by a swarm of red devils. Winged angels appear at her death. It’s as camp as a row of tents, but visually striking all the same.
The title-role was written for Erminia Frezzolini, renowned for her beauty of tone and upper-register agility. Verdian spinto greats such as Renata Tebaldi and Montserrat Caballé tackled it on disc, as has Anna Netrebko, who first sang it at the Salzburg Festival (DG, 9/14). Here at La Scala, Netrebko is in magnificent voice, especially her strikingly rich lower register, even if her Act 1 cabaletta is a little squally. She soars in the Act 2 finale, while her preghiera is beautifully shaped. Netrebko is becoming one of the great Verdi sopranos of our day.
As Carlo, Francesco Meli sings a good deal more sensitively than other recent outings (he can be a bit of a can-belter) and Carlos Álvarez is in terrific voice as Giovanna’s father, Giacomo. Riccardo Chailly is alert to the drama in the score, leading a vivid orchestral performance.
Up against the Scala forces, Parma struggles but offers a stronger cast than the opera’s previous DVD incarnation (also from Parma) in C Major’s ‘Tutto Verdi’ bicentenary release in 2013, which suffered a shrill soprano, a poor tenor and a gruff Renato Bruson, sadly well past his sell-by date as Giacomo. Parma’s new production from 2016 comes from the husband-and-wife team of Peter Greenaway and Saskia Boddeke, staged in the 17th-century Baroque Teatro Farnese. It’s an unusual space – U shaped – with no pit. This leads to a tiny stage for the principals, while the chorus is relegated to serried ranks wrapped around stage and orchestra.
There are some striking background images beamed on to the theatre’s archways, including iconography of Renaissance Madonnas and, later, modern-day refugee mothers carrying their children. An animated bloodied crown hovers over the stage at times. A cartoon of a coyly blinking girl is less effective, looking like a Japanese anime, and the meaning behind a battlefield of scissors escaped me.
Another drawback is that Vittoria Yeo’s Giovanna is accompanied by a pair of distracting dancer doubles, often relegating the Korean soprano to the role of observer. I’ve been impressed by Yeo recently in Venice and Florence; she’s a plucky Giovanna, if without Netrebko’s vocal glamour, a touch sour on occasion. Luciano Ganci forces quite a lot as Carlo but it’s often an attractive voice, and solid baritone Vittorio Vitelli does well as Giacomo, confined to the rear steps for his big aria while Greenaway and Boddeke have Giovanna’s doubles faffing about amid a swirl of video butterflies. No competition for La Scala.