United Kingdom Verdi, Giovanna D’Arco (1845): Soloists, Buxton Festival Chorus. Northern Chamber Orchestra / Stuart Stratford (conductor), Opera House, Buxton, 11.7.2015. (RJF)
Carlo, King of France – Ben Johnson
Giacomo, a shepherd – David Cecconi
Giovanna D’Arco, his daughter – Kate Ladner
Talbot, commander of the English army – Graeme Danby
Delil, an officer of the King – Stuart Laing
Director – Elijah Moshinsky
Designer – Russell Craig
Lighting – Malcolm Rippeth
Giovanna D’Arco was Verdi’s seventh opera. Premiered at La Scala on the fifteenth February 1845 it followed Ernani and I Due Foscari premiered in Rome and Venice respectively the previous year. The libretto is largely based on Schiller’s play Die Jungfrau von Orleans. It was Verdi’s fifth opera for La Scala, though the composer was growing disenchanted with the standards of the Milan theatre. In his view the orchestra was too small, the scenery and costumes often inadequate and the singers inclined to take too many liberties. Despite a poor public response to the tenor, Giovanna D’Arco was 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
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 of the opera 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 well buried, La Scala premiered the four-act version of Don Carlo (1884) and, more significantly, the revised Simon Boccanegra (1881) in which Boito, the librettist, significantly altered the original 1857 version that had fallen into neglect. The success of the relationship between Boito and Verdi during that revision led directly to their collaboration in the creation of the composer’s final two, and perhaps greatest operatic masterpieces, Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893).
The story concerns how, spurred on by a vision of angels who ask her to become a soldier and lead France to victory over the English, Giovanna inspires Carlo, the future king of France, to continue the seemingly lost fight. Her father, a shepherd, convinced she has given her soul to the devil denounces her to the English. On the eve of his Coronation, Carlo confesses his love for Giovanna, but voices warn her against earthly carnal love. Her father denounces her to the English and she is condemned to death.
Whether the contretemps with La Scala was a deleterious influence on Verdi or not, his music fails to match at least two of its immediate predecessors, particularly Ernani ,his fifth opera, and its predecessor I Lombardi. It is perhaps significant that when Verdi wrote his first opera for Paris two years later, he chose to revise I Lombardi rather than the very French story of Giovanna D’Arco. Too much of the music here seems to deserve that crude description of the composer as the Busseto Bandmaster, with poor quality rum ti tum tunes not a patch in terms of orchestral or choral creativity compared with even Nabucco, his third opera of three years before, let alone the two mentioned.
With the characters wearing costumes of the period, Russel Craig’s basic set of the inside of a cube, looking at only one of the right angles centre stage, and therefore two sides and a centre angled square for most of the action. A higher layer above the angled sides facilitated the appearance of red-garbed demons or nuns as required by the story. Elijah Moshinsky, well versed in Verdi production in eminent environs, made what he could of this basic set and a few props whilst being particularly aided by imaginative lighting.
Of the singers two were relatively young, Australian soprano Kate Ladner, a distinctly sweet toned lyric soprano took on the eponymous role and was stretched by the tessitura at times and often lacking clear diction. As the king to be, tenor Ben Johnson, winner of the Song and Audience prizes at the 2013 Cardiff Singer competition, sang with pleasing lyric tone and like his would be lover somewhat vocally stretched from time to time. Both singers should not, as yet I suggest, be tempted by this repertoire in larger houses that Matcham’s delightful nine hundred plus seater at Buxton. The physically and vocally imposing Italian baritone David Cecconi had no such problems. His tone was strong with a wide variety of colour and expression, he made Giovanna’ father the focus of the action when he was on stage and really brought the role of Giacomo alive as he realised that his daughter had not been afflicted by demons, but was a true heroine of France. Her entry, fatally wounded, on a period two wheeled Gun Carriage, was the only decent prop to be seen. Such are the budget limitations of self-supporting Festival productions at Buxton and elsewhere.
Stuart Stratford on the rostrum was a tower of strength making much of the limited material Verdi provided. The chorus, a mere sixteen aided by Stuart Laing’s Dalil and Graeme Danby at times, made a virile sound.
Robert J Farr