6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
A really praiseworthy project recovering Verdi's "Giovanna" in all its artistic value and in excellent sound.,
This review is from: Verdi: Giovanna D'Arco (Audio CD)
Surely, Temistocle Solera (1815-1878), although his undisputed ability in the art of reducing dramatic subjects to an operatic format, had to work hard to condense the very complicated "saga" concerning Jeanne d'Arc (1412-1431) within the narrow space of a libretto.
Traditionally, it is reported that Solera loosely based his work on Friedrich von Schiller's drama "Die Jungfrau von Orleans", published in 1801, but the librettist always claimed that his work was completely original (Tchaikovsky, while studying it for its own operatic reduction of the subject, had the same impression).
Schiller's drama had been already used for some preceding operatic reductions - among the others, Michele Carafa (Paris, 1821), Nicola Vaccai (Venice, 1827), Giovanni Pacini (La Scala, 1830) -, therefore some original improvements was expected.
Anyway, Schiller had composed his drama as a polemical counterattack against Voltaire's "La pucelle d'Orléans" (which was a sort of comic work debunking Joan's myth) and his work was in turn a loose interpretation, for philosophical and moralistic purposes, of Joan's biography.
It is also not clear which could have been Solera's other sources. In theory, in 1844-45, he could have had on his disposal the records of Joan's trials, published in 1841, and/or the extract, specifically concerning Jeanne's life, from Jules Michelet's "Histoire de France", published in 1841, and/or the first six volumes of the same "Histoire de France", published in 1843.
But what is important to underline here is that Schiller, Napoleon I (with evident political and anti-Britannic purposes), Michelet had just started the restoration of Jeanne's myth.
The steadier reconstruction of the figure of Jeanne d'Arc, as nowadays we know it, took place during the second half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century. The Bishop of Orléans proposed a petition for Jeanne's beatification in 1864. The beatification trial started in 1894, as Jeanne was titled "Venerable"; she was entitled "Blessed" in 1909 and "Saint" in 1920; she is Secondary Patroness of France, together with Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux - being the Primary Patroness Mary, the Mother of God - and Saint Patroness of telegraphy and radio.
From a socio-cultural point of view, the construction was steady consolidated by Charles Péguy's dramas and, from a historical point of view, by Anatole France by means of his critical biography of Joan.
Therefore, in 1801 (Schiller) or in 1844-45 (Solera-Verdi), Jeanne d'Arc's life was just a not well focused myth, something halfway between a historic and a legendary chain of events. As a consequence, in particular within the Italian cultural background (but not in the Papal State!) the story could be quite freely reinvented and reinterpreted for dramaturgical purposes.
But, very soon, this became no longer true. In other words, in this case, the operatic abstraction came just before an unpredictably powerful cultural, political and religious process that completely changed the status of Jeanne within the history, the culture and the religion.
All that Solera and Verdi had invented to make the subject "more fashionable" (an idealistic connection with Italian Risorgimento, the introduction of a sort of "romantic" love story, a different ending, etc.) or to match the exigences of the star Erminia Frezzolini (a preference for the higher part of the soprano range) very quickly, and, by far, more heavily then usual, turned against "Giovanna d'Arco" artistic longevity, being the approach evidently unsuitable, or even inappropriate, to the new "standing" of the topic.
As a matter of fact, in a few years, the subject will become very important and "delicate" and it will ask for a far more attentive and history-based treatment.
From this perspective, it is possible to better explain the relatively short permanence in the repertory of Verdi's seventh opera. As is known, "Giovanna d'Arco" premiere (La Scala, 14 February 1945; sop. Frezzolini, ten. Poggi, bar. Colini, harps. Verdi, leader Cavallini) was not welcomed by critics. Verdi, who was convinced of the quality of his work, attributed the fault to La Scala bad organization of the event, and this was one of the reasons of his longtime rupture with that theatre.
On the contrary, the audience acclaimed the work, which was reprised seventeen times. The opera successfully remained in the Italian operatic repertory for about twenty-five years; then, quite suddenly, it disappeared, which is consistent with the exponential growth of Jeanne d'Arc figure.
But it is also evident that the opera was immediately not suitable for a French audience, the same, obviously, for an English (in his Henry VI - Part 1, Shakespeare refers to Joan as a sort of witch able to evoke evil spirits, and, in any case, her myth was connected with a not brilliant page of English history) or a phil-Austrian ones. In the States it was premiered in 1966.
Therefore, it is only starting from WWII postwar period (it is not by chance that its first high level re-proposal is dated 1951) that we can actually regard Solera-Verdi's opera as what it was intended to be, that is just a "romantico-risorgimentale" melodramatic reinterpretation of a mystical-patriotic-heroic historical legend.
But, starting from that, what we are really interested in is to "explore" it, searching for its intrinsic and eternal human, spiritual and artistic values.
In my opinion, "Giovanna d'Arco" is not so bad as often stated. On the contrary, I think it is an actually worthy work, even if, surely, not an outstanding masterpiece.
It presents all the qualities to run for being regarded as the best of the first seven Verdi's operas and it is not worst than someone of the later ones. Surely, in comparison with "Nabucco" or "I Lombardi", it is hampered by the fact that it and its melodies do not belong to a collective cultural subconscious or background.
Anyway, from a musical point of view, it has a not banal overture, it presents some interesting and innovative reinterpretations of Bellini's and Donizetti's stylistic canons, some new harmonic and rhythmic experimentations, some anticipations of "Macbeth" in the interaction between human beings and supernatural powers, a very well managed alternation and mixing of epical, bucolic, emotional, mystical - related to individual or collective moods - themes. Vocal lines are not very catchy, but are quite original and attentively developed and opposed.
Also the libretto, very often considered the weakest point of this opera, if regarded following the right perspective, presents many worthy features.
As already pointed out, Solera had to tackle some very difficult problems. The "saga" was very complex and rich of events. Besides, its actors were very numerous (Schiller used twenty-seven characters and twelve scenes!) and their behaviors often contradictory. The many topics involved asked for a non-superficial treatment. All the thing had to last the (short) time allowed by the taste of the Italian audience, while it would have asked for a Wagnerian length. People awaited from Verdi a patriotic message (1948 was very near), some involving melodies and a romantic unlucky love story. Singers wanted their occasion. In other words: looking for a genius!
Maybe Solera was not a genius, but surely he was a very skillful librettist, a cultured man of letters and a good musician. He finds his solution by means of the use of a strong abstraction process and of "figurae".
He abstracts from the "saga" the main topics he wants to underline. Then, he uses his characters both as themselves (as "historical roles": Jeanne, the Dauphin Charles, Giacomo (?), Jeanne's father) and as "figurae" embodying collective main attitudes or moods. Giacomo IS Giovanna's father, but he also personifies the feelings of all those who, in good-faith, looked at her suspiciously and, finally, openly accused her. Carlo IS the King of France and he, as a man, loves Giovanna, but he also personifies the feelings of all those who believed in her, in spite of her official condemnation.
This way, Solera manages to use, in six scenes, only five characters (actually, three plus two minor ones) and the chorus (in different roles).
Obviously, through this process, characters lose most of their historical features, but Solera and Verdi were interested in a realistic reconstruction only within the limits that it served to give liveliness and a bit of credibility to the plot.
Solera chooses a non-historical Schiller-like ending; Giovanna does not die on the stake, as she had been condemned to, but as a consequence of the wounds of the last victorious battle. There are many reasons for this choice. One of them has political motivations. You will notice that in the libretto priests or, in general, characters belonging to the Church hierarchy are substantially absent. Indeed, the subject could be interpreted both in an anti-clerical and in a phil-clerical perspective. In those years, in Milan, Anticlericalism was prevalent, Verdi was substantially agnostic, but Solera was a "neoguelfo" (favorable to a political role of Church); the librettist, putting in the background the religious trial and saving Giovanna from her death on the stake, avoids a very delicate problem.
In conclusion, from a dramaturgical point of view, Solera libretto "works" and the story flows without many hindrances or awkwardnesses and, above all, it is not heavy and, contemporarily, not superficial.
From a poetical point of view, verses are carefully written and the metric works well with the music. They have a high power of synthesis, even if they are not particularly elegant. The vocabulary is fine, words are well chosen, and the general style is not heavy and it is less bombastic than in other contemporary poetry (it is also lighter and better refined than Maffei's translation of Schiller's drama).
Solera was anything but stupid and his proud claims to originality were not without motivations. His libretto is not a masterpiece, but considering all the constraints he had to face, it can be regarded as a very skillful work, the best feature of which is its capacity to bring you directly to the heart of the matter.
All that fully justifies the really praiseworthy 1972-73 EMI project, which, at long last, recovered this quite forgotten opera in a very good sound, using a stellar cast, a young, but already famed, conductor, a very fine orchestra and an excellent chorus.
Montserrat Caballé (b. 1933) is not my preferred soprano but, here, she is simply divine. From a musical point of view, the part seems to have been written just for her. Surely, a bit younger Caballé would have better fitted for the Pucelle with a fresher timbre, but we abundantly regain in terms of interpretative experience the little we lose in terms of youthfulness. Besides, Giovanna features an adult martial and mystical personality, and she is sexually mature (Jeanne named herself "pucelle" to stress her free choice of chastity).
Caballé is exceptional in giving an emotional sense to every embellishment and virtuoso passage of the part. She confidently takes the centre of a musical architecture built around the only feminine protagonist and she proposes an absolutely credible Giovanna, in her spiritual and patriotic fervor, in her female sensitiveness, in her firmness in looking for expiation. As previously pointed out, here Giovanna avoid to die on the stake she was condemned to, and she dies after she has saved once again her compatriots from a defeat. This solution allows Solera and Verdi to make us to assist at her transfiguration through the ecstasy of her supreme vision and to make her die as a heroic martyr and not as a witch. Similarly to the death of Marguerite, in Goethe's Faust, the scene (and here the opera) ends with the triumph of celestial powers and the disappointment of evil ones.
Also here, where the credibility of all the scene depends on the interpreter's ability, Montserrat Caballé demonstrates once again to be able to heighten vocal expression up to the sublime. Worth listening to!
Placido Domingo (n. 1941) in 1972 is in his youthful prime and he is perfectly aged to personify Charles VII (1403-1461), who, at the time of Jeanne's death, was twenty-eight years old.
Obviously, Solera-Verdi's Carlo has only a very few features to share with the historical Charles' personality and behaviour. All the rest is completely invented and romantically made up.
In the opera, Carlo behaves as an unmarried young man and he deeply falls in love with Giovanna. In the history, Charles VII had married Marie d'Anjou (1404-1463) in 1422 (whom he had thirteen children from), he had a passionate love story with Agnès Sorel (from whom he had three daughters), and, after this latter died, he had a relation with his cousin Antoinette de Maignelais.
Therefore, in Solera's work, Carlo is partly the historic Charles and mainly he is a narrative "figura", which embodies both what Giovanna had to avoid (a "terreno affetto") and all those who believed in her.
Besides, here Carlo is gentle, pious and, consequently very credible in causing Giovanna's temptation
Domingo is in the part, he is not a bit generic as in some other occasions, he sings exceptionally well and, above all, he well expresses, with his vocal warmth, Carlo's sweetness, also in accepting a merely spiritual friendship.
Sherill Milnes (b. 1935) not always completely satisfies me. On the contrary, here he is really excellent in rendering the troubled personality of Giacomo, Giovanna's old father.
In the libretto Giacomo is given an absolutely imaginary role, but, as already pointed out, he, even more than Carlo, is a narrative "figura", which represents himself and all those who defeated and, finally, accused Giovanna, but in good-faith and intimately and sincerely suffering while doing that.
Giacomo tries to conciliate his absolutist religious faith with his sincere fatherly love for Giovanna. He is a simple shepherd, who appears to be imprisoned by his own ignorance and who behaves on the basis of a coarse misunderstanding. He rationally think to have found the right solution in asking for Giovanna's condemnation, in order to allow her to expiate her sin and to save her soul.
Obviously, at an emotional level, the too theoretical idea cannot work and, consequently, he falls in a state of mental confusion, as explicitly stated in the stage direction introducing his meeting with Talbot: "Giacomo, il suo crine scomposto, i suoi atti dimostrano il disordino della mente."
He will recover his lucidity only in the ending, when he tardily, and with terrible pain, becomes aware of his tragic misjudgment.
Milnes, with rare mastery, manages to "arrange" his voice to perceptibly render, even only through it, Giacomo's interior distress and even the vein of mental disease which cracks his judgement capacity. A top level interpretation, which further enriches this excellent performance.
Robert Lloyd (b. 1940) is clearly "over-dimensioned" for the little role of Talbot and, as usual, he sings very well.
Keith Erwen is a reliable supporting role singer and he appropriately interprets the minor part of Delil.
James Levine (b. 1943), during those years, was making his most important step up the ladder. He had not still reached a full interpretative maturity, but the stylistic elements which will characterize Levine's approach were already clearly present: an intense emotional involvement, a vivacious and colorful score reading, a vivid alternation between slow and fast tempos.
It is a not a rare opinion that here Levine often rushes a bit too much, maybe to give momentum to a score which still presents some youthful faults like, in particular, some tension losses. While the superb singers and the excellent chorus manage to follows the pace (sometimes you wonder how they can pronounce so well and breath!), here and there the orchestra is obliged to garble a bit its notes. Besides, the London Symphony Orchestra was not, and never will be, one of "his own" orchestras and, here and there, reciprocal understanding is not perfect.
In general terms, I think that one thing is to give impulse (that implies the sensation to win some kind of inertia or resistance), another different one is to hurry in a too light manner. In the second case, the risk is to empty the musical meaning in favor of a mere effect.
In Verdi, and in particular where metre is triple, the lightening caused by fast pace could lead to an operetta-like effect. Here Levine sometimes border on this limit ..., but obviously it is also a question of taste, and, in the young Verdi, brisk accelerations are not philologically incorrect. Indisputably, Levine works very well in lyrical and ecstatic passages, and he is exceptionally gifted in extracting from the score a rich range of colors, creating a warm and wrapping sensation.
The London Symphony Orchestra works at its usual high standards and it sounds warm and involving.
Here the chorus, in its different configurations, has an actually prominent role. It is a good occasion for the magnificent Ambrosian Opera Chorus and for the great John McCarthy to show all their wonderful capacities.
The sound (Abbey Road, VIII & IX 1972, stereo-analogic) is very nice and well balanced. This 2011 issue uses again the 1998 re-mastering, that is the one used for the preceding issue on CD (see: Verdi: Giovanna d'Arco).
As usual in this EMI collection, the libretto is on the additional CD or it can be downloaded from the EMI Opera site.
In conclusion, five stars to the EMI project on the whole, enriched by one the best Caballé's recordings, while, in my opinion, Levine will propose some better and maturer performances.
I think this recording is the best first purchase and, for Caballé fans, a quite obligatory one.
For Verdi's fans, I think the second choice should be the 1951 recording with Tebaldi, Bergonzi, Panerai and the Milan RAI Orchestra conducted by Simonetto, with the warning that the sound is not very good.