Giuseppe Verdi - Giovanna d'Arco
Teatro alla Scala, 2015
Riccardo Chailly, Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier, Anna Netrebko, Francesco Meli, Devid Cecconi, Dmitry Beloselskiy
ARTE Concert - 7 December 2015
I suppose it can't be easy for La Scala to aspire to be a modern progressive European opera house and at the same time keep the more vociferous elements of its audience happy. The opening performance of the new season on the day celebrating the city's patron saint is always a useful barometer for measuring where the Milan opera house is going to sit in the coming year and how successful those efforts are going to be. Based on the new production of Verdi's Giovanna d'Arco, with Riccardo Chailly taking over from Daniel Barenboim as principal conductor, there seems to be some measure of compromise involved and a return to the Scala's core Italian repertoire. While there might be a few reservations, it's hard however not to see the big opening night performance as being largely a successful one.
It's probably safest to give the Italian public at La Scala a Verdi opera, but based on last year's Tcherniakov La Traviata, that's not necessarily a guarantee of unanimous acclaim. Rather than beg comparisons with another Rigoletto or La Traviata, La Scala have instead chosen to open the 2015/16 season with of one of the composer's lesser-known but worthy early operas, Giovanna d'Arco, one moreover that was first performed at La Scala in Milan in 1845. If it's done right you're onto a winner and La Scala take no chances here engaging Anna Netrebko, a singer willing and capable of adding another striking Verdi soprano role to her repertoire. It's a role she has sung before only in concert in Salzburg in 2013, but here she performs it on the dramatic stage for the first time. Netrebko doesn't disappoint.
Joan of Arc is one of those challenging Verdi soprano roles that sound amazing when they are done right, but there are few who are capable of doing it with the kind of passion, control and personality that Netrebko brings to the role here. Her deep voice does occasionally sound like it's getting 'woolier', but it's a big and expressive voice that can take on the technical challenges of Giovanna. Netrebko can also throw herself into a performance without putting a step wrong or a note out of place. Her performance here is utterly professional, almost too good you might even think and too smooth in delivery, but no - it's simply superb singing and a fine dramatic performance, no bones about it.
It's by no means a one-woman show however, and there are other significant roles in this opera that are well cast here, with Francesco Meli a wonderfully lyrical Carlo VII, and good supporting performances from Devid Cecconi replacing Carlos Alvarez as Giacomo and Dmitry Beloselskiy as Talbot. It helps that these performances are all complementary, working well with one another and with Netrebko - Meli in particular forming an incredible duo with Netrebko. I wasn't totally sold on the musical performance under Chailly. Musically, it feels a little restrained and this early Verdi could do with a bit more 'letting loose'. I haven't seen any criticism of Chailly elsewhere however, so it's perhaps best not to judge that from the less than perfect medium of a streamed internet broadcast.
Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier production seems to find a good compromise between period and conceptual, but it doesn't work entirely satisfactorily. It's perhaps not the most original way of achieving that, Giovanna here seeming to be a 19th century woman suffering a mental breakdown, identifying in her dreams with Joan of Arc. The idea has merit and basis in the underlying psychology of Joan of Arc, particularly with how it's explored in Solera's libretto based on Friedrich Schiller's drama. The woman/Joan appears to have suffered a trauma, perhaps sexual, and seeks to find empowerment in her dreams of being the religious saviour of her people. Her love for her king is somewhat ambiguous however, and it raises troubling notions of how she can retain her purity and chastity, particularly in relation to her father and society look upon her presumption.
The action then all takes place in Giovanna's bedroom, the floor and walls slightly tilted, the king appearing in her visions all in gold, like a statue come to life. By the end of the prelude however, the dream has exploded into full-blown delusion, the armies and citizens pouring through the walls in spectacular fashion. The whole things brings to mind Netrebko's performance in Iolanta for the Met, and the father here is similarly a protective, powerful authority figure who attempts to hold her back from her true self or who she wants to be. She needs to be grander to overcome his objection and concerns and be seen as pure in his eyes. The whole father-daughter set-up very much Verdi however, and thematically very close to Rigoletto. Chailly highlights those musical references in the shimmering lightning effects of one scene and particularly in the final death scene.
Leiser and Caurier take this theme of religious purity and redemption a little bit further, having Jesus walk onto the stage and pass on a cross for her to carry - but it fits in with the heightened drama here and the frequent references to Giovanna's chastity. It also strengthens the charge of blasphemy laid against Giovanna for her to be burnt at the stake. It has an internal consistency then, even if it is far removed from Verdi, Solera and Schiller's original idea, never mind the historical reality. You could see this Giovanna's battlefield death as merely being a delusion of a woman on the stake, only the stake is also a delusion in this version, which doesn't leave you with a whole lot of reality to grasp onto. You get a fairly modern production then, but it's one which still allows all the armour and stirring calls to battle. Most of all however you have Verdi and Anna Netrebko, and I think most would happily settle for that.
Links: ARTE Concert, Teatro alla Scala