Last Monday La Scala opened its new season with Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco (1845). A webcast is available until the 6th of January, 2016 on www.arte.tv. If the link gives you a sad face and a “not available in your country” message, do not despair. The performance was broadcast on at least two TV channels and a recording is bound to turn up in the usual places. Three reasons to watch this if you missed it:
- Verdi. A lot of people are unhappy with principal conductor (and future direttore musicale) Riccardo Chailly’s choice of season opener. Saddled with a weak libretto, Giovanna d’Arco is an early Verdi opus containing swathes of formulaic and undistinguished music, particularly in the ensembles. However, in this lesser Verdi we can hear elements that later morphed into masterpieces such as Macbeth, and some of the writing for the soloists is of much better quality that the opera as a whole. Lesser or not, nobody can muster an army or score a royal procession like Verdi. Chailly makes no apologies for the early Verdian idiom and wills a rousing performance from the La Scala orchestra. This is not an opera for people who say things like “I love Don Carlo because it is quasi-Wagnerian”, but for unconditional lovers of Verdi and the refined art of singing of the first half of the nineteenth century popularly known as bel canto. Which brings us to …
- The Singing, signed Anna Netrebko and Francesco Meli. There is no point in putting on Giovanna D’Arco without a soprano who can tackle the technical and artistic demands of the part. Lesser Verdi operas often demand major voices, and only few opera houses can afford a star of Anna Netrebko’s magnitude in the title role. Which is why it is so thrilling that La Scala chose to stage this opera for her. Netrebko has the volume and security to soar over the large ensembles, but sings most gorgeously in the quieter, melodious moments. Similarly, Francesco Meli as Charles VII is technically always in control and gives us reams of beautiful sound.
- The Staging. Directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier have found an excellent solution to Temistocle Solera’s libretto, which really belongs in the shredder. Very tenuously based on Schiller’s play The Maid of Orleans, it is nothing more than cardboard characters singing unoriginal text while moving through a plot made up of a handful of stunted ideas, the most interesting of which is that Joan of Arc’s father, believing she follows Satan, betrays her, and France, to the English. In this staging, Joan is a schizophrenic young woman from a nineteenth century bourgeois home suffering from hallucinations and religious megalomania. Most of the libretto makes sense within this concept. The choruses of angels and devils become the voices in Joan’s head. Charles VII, who is in love with Joan and wants to make her his queen, and her disloyal father illustrate facets of her tortured psyche. The set is sober at first, but becomes visually elaborate, with hoards of medieval peasants, tinselly soldiers and chiaroscuro video projections. The religious and erotic imagery is kitschy on purpose, reminding us that this is a hyperreality constructed by a confused mind. The King is sprayed in gold and a cheap plaster Madonna deludes Joan that she is receiving heavenly missives. There is even a walk-on crucified Christ who spends many hours at the gym. The coronation and battle scenes, which must look spectacular in the house, are too large-scale to be captured effectively on a small screen. But there is enough in this performance that does come across, not least the exciting singing and conducting.