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RECORD KEEPING | Giovanna d’Arco With Anna Netrebko Explains Why The Best Operas Survive

By Paul E. Robinson on August 30, 2018

Riccardo Chailly combined with the artistry of Netrebko, saves this La Scala production of Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco from over-the-top silliness.

Verdi: Giovanna d’Arco. Anna Netrebko (Giovanna), Francesco Meli (Carlos VII), Carlos Alvarez (Giacomo). La Scala Orchestra and Chorus/Riccardo Chailly. Stage Directors: Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. Set Designer: Christian Fenouillat. Decca Blu-ray Disc. Total Time: 136:00.

Historians tell us that Joan of Arc (c.1412-1431) was a real person who led France against English invaders in the latter part of the Hundred Years War. Having led France to several battlefield victories, she was eventually captured and burned at the stake by the English forces. Declared a martyr by Pope Eugene IV several years after her death, she was canonized in 1920.

Joan of Arc’s story has inspired several composers — most notably Tchaikovsky (opera: The Maid of Orleans) and Honegger (oratorio: Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher [Joan of Arc at the Stake]). Giuseppe Verdi wrote an opera about Joan of Arc based on a Schiller play; not among his greatest achievements, it is rarely produced and has had only a handful of recordings, of which this latest one is particularly noteworthy, at least for its musical merits.

Giovanna d’Arco, written in 1844, immediately after I due Foscari and just before Alzira, was Verdi’s seventh opera. In short, this is early Verdi and lacks the musical maturity and dramatic insights of his later operas. That said, it is a good vehicle for a first-rate singing actress and the score does have more than a few touches of originality; for example, in the last act there is a fine baritone aria with a lovely accompaniment featuring English horn and solo cello.

Russian soprano Anna Netrebko is without a doubt one of the foremost singing actresses of her generation. With a commanding stage presence and a voice that can be either muscular or melting as the music requires, she has triumphed in recent years as both Tosca and Violetta, roles that suit her perfectly. While she is a little old (47) to be portraying a 19-year-old Joan of Arc, her vocal power certainly justifies casting her in the role.

This new Blu-ray Disc of a 2015 production of Giovanna d’Arco, chosen as his debut production by then-incoming music director Riccardo Chailly, marks the first time in 150 years that the opera had been given at La Scala. Chailly, who had led performances of Giovanna d’Arco as far back as 1990, has demonstrated a lifelong affection for the opera.

In this 2015 performance, Chailly elicited superb playing from his orchestra and a cast that could hardly be bettered. Nebrebko, partnered by tenor Francesco Meli as Carlo VII — he sang magnificently — and by baritone Carlos Alvarez, with as rich and expressive a voice as one could imagine as her father, Nebrebko, apart from some moments of roughness in Act I, was in great form.  Note: Meli deserves special credit for tolerating his “all gold” costume, face and hair included.

Opera plots — the one devised for Giovanna d’Arco is a perfect example — are often implausible and silly. While the directing team of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier did their best to gloss over that silliness, their efforts probably made matters even worse. In this production, Joan of Arc only imagines leading the French forces into battle and falling in love with the King. During the Overture she is asleep, and the fact that her bed and bedroom reappear as the scene of most of the action in the opera, raises some questions: If Joan was a real historical figure why is she depicted as a demented peasant girl in the opera? And even in a young girl’s bad dreams, does it makes sense to have her father denounce her as a heathen traitor in one scene and declare her a God-fearing patriot in the next? And what are we to make of the father’s brutal assault on his daughter in front of the French forces? He slaps her twice in this production, and each time with considerable force? Some father. Some dream.

There are numerous special effects in this production, including projections of red-hued devils and masses of angels representing the warring factions in Joan’s soul, and a fairly impressive scene in which Rheims Cathedral seems to rise out of the floor. But as is the case in many operatic productions, these effects seem contrived and are poorly executed. Having recently watched the new film Mission Impossible — Fallout with my grandchildren, I was duly impressed by the astonishing computer-generated effects. While just as silly as the Giovanna d’Arco plot, the use of the latest technology made the story highly entertaining; by comparison, our opera houses seem to be making do with special effects technology that is at least 50 years out of date. But to be fair, Mission Impossible had a budget of $178 million, and as of August 6, had already grossed $334 million.

In defence of our opera houses and their precarious financial states, the music ultimately is “the thing”, which explains why the best operas survive and continue to attract discerning audiences. And from time to time, thankfully, stage directors appear who can make magic with meagre budgets and inadequate technology. In the case of this new Giovanna d’Arco Blue-ray Disc, although the production is little more than passable and the music is not all that great, even early Verdi has its pages of genius; that fact, combined with the artistry of Netrebko, Meli, Alvarez and Chailly makes the viewing of this new release an enjoyable experience.

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