GiovannaGiuseppe Verdi - Giovanna D’Arco

Teatro Regio di Parma, 2008 | Bruno Bartoletti, Gabriele Lavia, Evan Bowers, Renato Bruson, Svetla Vassileva, Luigi Petroni, Maurizio Lo Piccolo | C-Major

By the time Verdi came to compose Giovanna D’Arco in 1845, the composer was eager to take on more substantial works of literary merit with the kind of romantic scope and emotional range that suited and appealed to his musical sensibility. He had engaged the young poet Francisco Maria Piave to work on his Victor Hugo adaptation, Ernani, and he would soon come to tackle his first Shakespeare work with Macbeth the following year. For Giovanna D’Arco, Verdi found inspiration in Friedrich von Schiller’s story of Joan of Arc, finding material for a true dramma lirico that was a match for his developing talent, but also clearly responding personally to the revolutionary sentiments that echoed with the contemporary reality of Risorgimento Italy.

The grand epic nature of the story and Verdi’s responsiveness towards it is immediately evident in the composer’s scoring for the overture and in his personal reworking of the material. The first Act alone establishes a strong and stirringly emotive context for the drama that unfolds. Set during the 100 Years’ War in 1429, King Charles VII of France (Carlos in the opera) announces - to the dismay of his followers - his abdication from the throne, and the necessity of surrendering to the English in order to spare his people from further suffering. He resolves to lay down his weapons at a shrine to the Virgin Mary that has appeared to him in a dream.

Despite the warnings of his followers that the shrine he describes exists in the nearby village of Domrémy, but that it is a cursed place, Carlos goes to the shrine and is inspired by the passionate figure of Joan he discovers there. Empowered by heavenly spirits to be an emissary for the Virgin Mary, Joan wishes to bear arms against the English in a holy war. Her father however, believes Joan to be in league with the devil, and betrays her to the English by turning her own followers and the King against her. In Verdi’s version of the work - quite different from Schiller’s work and the known historical accounts of Joan of Arc - Joan’s dilemma is depicted as being one of maintaining a sworn vow to remain pure from serving any earthly love, but the young warrior is unable to keep back her feelings for the king, feelings that are reciprocated by an admiring Carlos.

Giovanna D’Arco therefore deals with a classic high Romantic subject in the conflict between love and duty, caught up in a tense dramatic situation that involves war, revolution, family and religion - subjects that Verdi would often deal with, and there’s a similarity between this work and something like La Forza del Destino. While later Verdi would be more refined in characterisation and dramatic development - neither Giovanna D’Arco nor Macbeth are matches for the later Schiller and Shakespeare adaptations of Don Carlos or Otello, nor indeed is earlier Ernani comparable to his work on the later Hugo Rigoletto - but Verdi’s earlier work has its attractions, principally here in the composer’s beautiful melodic line and the consistency of his treatment of the opera’s themes. Broken down into Grand Opéra-like scenes - the King’s vision, the chorus of angels and demons in Act I alone - the construction may be conventional and not exactly inspired but it is exceptionally well crafted, pointing clearly towards the direction and the strengths of the later Verdi.

The quality of this rarely performed and underrated work is made evident here in this 2008 performance at the Teatro Regio di Parma’s Verdi Festival through a handsome production that is sympathetic to the style and nature of the work, and it also benefits from some excellent singing performances. Other than a painted backdrop depicting a Risorgimento cavalry charge - nothing more than a hint of what might have been on Verdi’s mind while composing - the production design and costumes are traditional and naturalistic to the Joan of Arc story itself. It’s beautifully lit and staged, transforming smoothly from one scene to the next, finding an appropriate look and tone that brings out the full impact of each highly charged situation. The placing of the performers - the stage often filled with the huge choruses composed by Verdi - also works to the best dramatic purpose, with little in the way of stagy theatrics or operatic mannerisms.

The singing of all three lead roles is excellent. Svetla Vassileva’s performance - as it ought to be for a figure like Joan of Arc - is powerful, impassioned, lively and precise in delivery, working fully in the spirit of the work itself. If there are any reservations about Evan Bowers’ performance as Carlos, they are only in respect of the writing for the role itself. It’s a similarly committed performance, well sung and acted, that works marvellously in the context of the work. Renato Bruson sounded a little unsteady in his first scene, but is solid where it counts later in the opera, as vocal challenges rise correspondingly with the emotionally charged dramatic developments. The orchestra, conducted by Bruno Bartoletti, and the chorus are also in fine form here, the cast and production working in common accord to present about as good an account of this rare Verdi work as you could imagine.

This recording of Giovanna d’Arco is released here on Blu-ray as part of the ‘Tutto Verdi’ series from C-Major, a collection that is made up of performances of all Verdi’s opera work recorded at the Teatro Regio di Parma. Some trailers for other works in the collection are included on the disc, as well as a visual introduction/synopsis for Giovanna d’Arco. The quality of the HD image is excellent, with good detail even in the darker scenes. There audio tracks are PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and both give a warm, clear account of the invigorating music, chorus and singing. The Blu-ray is all-region, with subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.