Giovanna D’Arco is one of Verdi’s least performed operas. Verdi didn’t even bother to attend it’s premiere at La Scala on February 15, 1845 as he was unhappy with both the production and La Scala’s management. The reason for its neglect is simple. It has the weakest score of any of opera he had written to that point. Its librettist, Temistocle Solera, based his story on Schiller’s play Die Jungfrau von Orleans. Schiller’s maiden warrior dies in battle after five acts of free flowing drama. Solera/Verdi’s Joan also dies in battle, but in four relatively short and puerile acts. Many important characters are dropped and the play’s famous line (“Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens” – idiomatically translated “Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain”) is omitted. The influence of Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable is palpable; there are invisible choirs of angels and devils. Much is made about Giovanna’s virginity or lack thereof. Rest assured she’s intact even if she did sin in her heart. She had a chaste fling with Charles VII.
Despite its shortcomings Giovanna D’Arco enjoyed considerable success for a short time after its initial appearance before lapsing into virtual obscurity. The Parma staging was again very good. It was recorded in October of 2008 As is becoming obvious to the video observer who’s never been to the place, the sets are sparse, but effective, while the costumes are opulent.
Solera’s condensation of Schiller reduced the principals to just three – Giovanna, Charles VII, and Giacomo (Giovanna’s father). The soprano role is the most developed and demanding in the opera. Svetla Vassileva has a focused lirico-spinto voice that can get shrill when under pressure. She is a very attractive woman and gave Giovanna as much life as Verdi’s score allowed. Her acting and stage presence were first rate.
American tenor Evan Bowers was Charles VII. He has a pleasant lyric tenor. He is a native of New York where he received his musical training. He was in the Merola Program at the San Francisco Opera. Over the last few years he has been making his way through the major house in Europe. This performance was one of his first important engagements. His voice shows promise and his career will be interesting to follow.
Renato Bruson was 72 years old when the opera was recorded. He sounds remarkably good for 72, but this isn’t to say he filled his part with distinction. There was a lot of bellowing and forced tones. There’s still a hint of how good he was in his prime which was 25 years before this outing.
Super veteran Bruno Bartoletti (born 1926) led a firm and nuanced performance of one of the master’s lesser works. His baton may have quivered with age, but he was fully in control of the soloists, chorus, and orchestra.
Of course, nothing by Verdi is without interest. I think the highlight of the opera is the adagio concertato that is the first half of the third act finale. This is the scene where Giovanna is falsely accused of being a witch – by her father no less. Giovanna accepts her plight with a soaring line of exquisite beauty that reminds the listener of Violetta’s similar situation at the end of act three of La Traviata. No, forme d’angelo non da l’Eterno
If the rest of the opera were at this level it would be a sublime masterpiece. But it’s not all like this, so Giovanna is for those who are so devoted to Verdi that everything by him must be heard.