The Triumph of Verdi’s Misunderstood Opera at La Scala’s Opening

ItalyItaly Verdi, Giovanna d’Arco:  Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro alla Scala, Milan.  Conductor, Riccardo Chailly.  Seen and heard in Direct Transmission  through RAI at cinema Barberini Rome 7.12. 2015. (JB)

Verdi, Giovanna d’Arco


Giacomo, a shepherd- David Cecconi
Giovanna, his daughter – Anna Netrebko
Carlo VII, the king – Francesco Meli


Staging – Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier
Sets – Christian Fenaouillat
Costumes – Agostino Cavalca
Lighting – Christophe Forey
Choreographer – Leah Hausman

CEO and Artistic Director of La Scala: Alexander Pereira

Verdi’s Giovanna D’Arco  has had rough and unfair receptions from critics and public alike.  Following the triumph at the premiere on 15 February 1845 at La Scala, the theatre wanted to see if they could give their new Chief Conductor, Riccardo Chailly, the possibility of repeating that distant triumph.  To a large degree they succeeded.

But Chailly starts out with an important bonus.  The Scala season always opens on 7 December, Sant’ Ambrogio, the city’s patron saint, when the rest of the city is closed.  All the political bigwigs hasten to La Scala for this annual event.  And this year, like all others, the protesters were out in full, including one young woman who jumped from a high balcony into the orchestra pit with a banner carrying the message, Anti austerity –and I’m talking to you, Matteo Renzi .  The prime minister’s  response is not available at my time of writing.  Still, the episode has some neat affinity with Joan of Arc.

Before the drama on stage could proceed, the CEO and Artistic Director of La Scala,  Alexander Pereira, appeared before the curtain to announce that Carlos Alvarez, who was to have sung the role of Giacomo, the shepherd, and father of Giovanna, was vocally indisposed but the theatre had been fortunate enough to get David Cecconi to come in from Florence to learn the role and attend some rehearsals for the demanding production.  (In the event, Mr Cecconi was excellent.  But to anyone superstitious, this may have felt ominous for a tale which moves between one curse and the next. )

Dr Pereira, who is Austrian, was formerly the Director of the Salzburg Festival and in 2013 had presented Giovanna D’Arco  in concert form at Salzburg with Francesco Meli and Anna Netrebko in the leading roles.  Meli and Netrebko are here again on Sant’Ambrogio, so thank you Salzburg for the rehearsals!  But Pereira’s greatest gift (and this is a hard one to trump with those two singers) is in calling in Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier for the most intelligent and imaginative production possible.

Ms Netrebko, in a pre-recorded television interview, screened in the one interval, speaking in English, with Italian subtitles, said she thought that the opera’s libretto was the daftest thing she had ever read with not the tiniest  regard for historical accuracy. (Someone should tell her that neither the Verdi operas nor Shakespeare dramas have even minimum regard for historical accuracy.)  Nevertheless, the lady was wholesome in her praise of the Stage Directors who had had the brilliant idea of staging the whole thing as Giovanna’s nightmare.  That approach suddenly twists the opera into “sense” while also heightening the peak moments of the drama.

During the prologue we see Giovanna at downstage left, asleep in a bed that looked as though it had just been hauled in from the nearest furniture shop (a little touch which was meaningless and even vulgar, which  the rest of the production was not.)  Her nightmare begins with her idolization of Carlo VII, who is dressed from head to foot in gold, including a gold wig and a gold painted face.  This is a masterstroke: a rare combination of misplaced beauty, artifice and drama, which immediately hits the bull’s eye of the nightmare.  But can I have been the only one in the audience who was concerned for Meli’s perfect delivery with all this encumbrance?   In the event, I need not have worried.   But don’t forget that I was seeing close-ups, whereas the audience in the actual theatre took in a bigger sweep which when the cameras pulled back gave the appropriate effect of misplaced dignity and alarm.

The Leiser, Caurier team can best be described as masters of nightmare logic. As with mythology, so with nightmares, any wholesome account has to explain the phenomena while leaving it unexplained.  The demons from which the demented Giovanna suffers  (some historical “accuracy” there; sorry Netrebko) were once again beautiful as well as terrifying with precision timing from Leah Hausman’s choreography, Agostino Cavalca’s costumes and Christophe Forey’s lighting.  The team worked seamlessly to give a bigger-than-life terror without any inappropriate feeling of overstatement.

Giovanna D’Arco is the prima donna opera to end all prima donna operas. (Ermenia Frezzolini-Poggi at the premiere) even more than La Traviata.  The technical demands of the role are greater than any other Verdi opera: Giovanna has to be soprano lirica, spinto and dramatica, passing easily between the three: think Lady Macbeth, Desdemona and Leanora all rolled into one.  Netrebko is certainly impressive, but not consistently so.  Her sweetness of tone and phrasing in O fatidica foresta  was breathtakingly beautiful (Act 1) with meticulous attention to the ornamentation which Verdi writes out in full.  But her weakness of Italian diction left her short of perfection.  In performances conducted by Pappano and Muti, they or someone on their team must have given her some guidance on this.  Tonight she might have been singing in Japanese.  I suspect that Chailly was too overawed by the great lady to offer help.  But take no notice of me.  She was fulsome in her praise of  Riccardo Chailly’s support at her interview.

Francesco Meli  (the King) gets better at every appearance, more vocally secure, more wholesome of tone, more musically secure of phrasing, more totally involved in the psychology of the role he plays.  His Sotto una quercia parvemi  (Beneath that oak tree I’ll hasten) –his andante cavatina in the Prologue, was one of the great highlights of the evening with one of the biggest ovations.  He joins the ranks of the great Verdi lyric tenors alongside Giuseppe Di Stefano and Carlo Bergonzi, though with a finer actor’s stage presence than those two greats.

At his interval interview, Riccardo Chailly made it clear that he had understood what this early Verdi opera is all about.  But there is a world of difference between understanding and putting that understanding into practice.  The early Verdi operas can easily sound like what some critics have called hurdy-gurdy Verdi.  Maestro Chailly is not entirely free of this vice: there are moments when it sounds like he has lost concentration and the excellence, which is largely present, gets abandoned in banality.  Chailly knows as well as me that on the printed page, Verdi sometimes looks banal, but in sound he is not.  The translation of print into sound depends on the balances of harmonies, orchestrations and voices.  For ninety percent of the time, Chailly is spot on with these tricky details.  His orchestra clearly respect him and want to play well for him.  Maybe this is as it is with Netrebko: he should ask them all to find a bit more giving of themselves.  Fear not Riccardo.  They’ll love you for it.

Jack Buckley

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