20 June 2018
In directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier's konzept, Giovanna is a teenager with a disturbed mind and a controlling, rigid, father, in a middle-class household around the beginning of the 20th century. Her father gave her a strict religious upbringing, which increasingly clashes with her awakening sexuality. She is experiencing visions of a sexual, religious and grandiose nature alternating with suicidal tendencies. Her symptoms would be diagnosed as a case of (sexual) hysteria 100 years ago and as a psychotic bipolar disorder today. The only external (real) conflict in this konzept is between Giovanna's hallucinatory behavior and her alarmed father - all the other characters and events are Giovanna's hallucinations. The exasperated father has scant means to help his daughter other than to argue with her, yell, threaten and even resort to physical violence to suppress her florid and disturbing hallucinations. He scores brief victories, but these symptoms are the essence of Giovanna's emotional life; without them, she becomes depleted and switches to suicidal (post-psychotic) depression.
(Act I) The drama opens at a point where Giovanna's illness reaches a point where she is bedridden (chapter 2 on the blu-ray, in the opening "Sinfonia"), her worried father fussing over her with help and attendants coming and going. Giovanna wakes up and is putting her hands over her ears to stop the voices (opening chorus, chapter 3) threatening divine retribution for wicked sins: the inner conflict is between Giovanna's awakening sexuality and her religious upbringing, or between id and superego. We see her visual hallucinations of the intimidating chorus spying on her - it is very well done, striking images conveying the inner torments of a paranoid mind: the chorus has a persecutory quality, they are trapped in glass cages (and in her mind) - scary. She begins to have vague visions of Carlo VII, fuzzy and poorly formed at this point. This will be the beginning of the solution her tormented mind will create for her agony.
The delusional vision of The King leaps into life (chapters 4, 5, 6). It is basically a teen idol, a perfect golden being. He consoles and uplifts Giovanna. This is a complete edition with all cabalettas and repeats. Francesco Meli gives a carefully calculated performance in a polished style with enough metal and power, ardor and heroism. He does not erase memories of Vincenzo La Scola in Herzog's 1989 Bologna production on a Kultur DVD - La Scola's tone is brighter, warmer, more open and ultimately with genuine, irresistible italianità that Meli lacks. There is a struggle in Giovanna's mind between The King's perfect goodness and the threatening chorus, they encircle him and are about to finish him off since he represents a sublimated version of Giovanna's sexual urges whereas they represent her superego, but he vanquishes them in his cabaletta with repeat (7) and they vanish. But Giovanna has mood swings, The King collapses lifeless and Giovanna pulls out both a razor and a rope (8) about to kill herself while her father rambles on, scandalized by what he sees. As usual, when Giacomo, Giovanna's father has the upper hand the visions are suppressed and Giovanna is down. But she flips back (mood swings), ties the rope around her waist instead of around her neck, and while her father prays to Jesus she prays to Mary, regains her stamina and (9) Anna Netrebko delivers a stunning account of her cavatina (10). Giovanna belongs to a group of early Verdi insanely difficult female heroines (Abigaille, Giselda, Ernani's Elvira, Odabella, Lady Macbeth and Amalia) who require a soubrette's coloratura agility combined with pipes of steel. Netrebko possesses both, as well as a rich, full fantastic tone that the sound engineers were able to capture how it expands (huge amplitude), blooms, ripens and fills the house. This is not just a gorgeous voice, it's a full artist who lives the role, and is able to make her conception of the role "read." The insight and details of her artistry are breathtaking. She is on stage all the time, never once loses concentration and is the reason why the directors were able to bring off this tired konzept of "it's all in her head" so successfully.
Giovanna hallucinates The King as revived, he is gaining the upper hand again (11), but her feelings towards him become more clearly erotic. She caresses him with projected erotic images. This triggers an offstage chorus, where the demons try to seduce Giovanna with a cute little waltz “Tu sei bella” (12). An angelic chorus answers back "Rise, beloved virgin!" The two choruses fight over Giovanna's soul. The Angels win, she puts on The King's golden armor, cries out "I am ready!" and launches a rousing rendition of the cabaletta "Son guerriera" (13). It has an unusual structure in that the repeat is sung by both tenor and soprano. Father notices that daughter is manic and out of control, protests "The King" (i.e., in this konzept " she's now fantasizing about some stupid king"), daughter becomes subdued and this part of the repeat of the cabaletta switches from an accompanied tenor-soprano duet into an acapella soprano-tenor-baritone trio. I don't know of any other example of this structure in Verdi. It's almost as if he was embarrassed by the tackiness of the crass Angels & demons business and tried to make up for it. Act I reaches a climax in a crude, silly chorus that is beautifully staged as visions of an army bursting into the stage out of nowhere, the French slaughtering the English, flames, banners, spears, Giovanna leading the charge: father cowers in horror as he watches daughter manic, out of control, "saving France." At this point, it looks like directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier were able to save Verdi's opera from its Temistocle Solera risible libretto.
(Act II) Giovanna has visions of the defeated English (14) singing in a chorus that is one of several passages in the opera that sound as if Verdi composed them on autopilot in his sleep (and that Donizetti appeared to him in his dreams). Father has had enough and protests angrily (15, 16, 17): Carlos Álvarez' Scena ed aria. As usual, the tone is a little constricted, the sound emission a little blocked as if the baritone struggles to get it out, particularly at the less than elegant ending of phrases; the legato and style less than pristine. But we have been living through a terrible famine of Verdi baritones (and basses) and if you complain too much you may get a certain ex-tenor, so this is a very fine performance, ok?
After father's extended hissy fit daughter snaps back into reality, the visions disappear, she puts on everyday clothes: Netrebko gives a moving account of her romanza "O fastidica foresta" (19). But she never fully snapped completely into reality - she sings the romanza holding an imaginary dagger left behind by the visions. Sure enough, she has a relapse of her symptoms, The King returns (20), they declare their love to each other and kiss passionately, but Giovanna freaks out "Leave me." Netrebko is stunning here as a singing actress depicting Giovanna's conflict "I am accursed!", alternating between tenderness and terror with showstopping, beautifully sung outbursts with perfect passagework (21). The victorious French return in beautiful shining silver armors (22) - a beautiful scene. The act concludes with a chorus of demons (23) and visions of the satanic winged creatures bathed in red lighting encircling and overpowering Giovanna. If you observe well you'll notice they are engaged in sexually suggestive poses and activities. It was rumored at the time that originally the directors, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, a gay couple for more than 20 years, had the diavoletti engage in explicit backdoor gay action, but Maestro Chailly had the scene toned down. Later, when Chailly was preparing to give an interview for Rai radio 3, Moshe Leiser yelled at him: "Congratulations Maestro, really congratulations", "A-hole", then, in Italian: "stronzo di merda".
(Act III) Giovanna dons the full King's golden armor (24) and looks like the Tinman from 'The Wizard of Oz.' She is completely delusional and has visions of The King's coronation in Reims Cathedral, that rises up from her bedroom floor. Father is at his wits' end (25) and Carlos Álvarez delivers his romanza "Speme al vecchio era una figlia" (26). He is more grieving then angry and is unable to stop daughter's visions, which become religiously ecstatic. She receives the cross from a Christ-like figure with stigmata and a crown of thorns (27). The King and chorus acclaim her "Long live Giovanna!" and The King kneels (28) while the lighting reflects Giovanna's ecstatic mood, the apex of her grandiose delusions. This is too much for her father who engages in an accusatory tirade against daughter, raising doubts about her virginity. Giovanna now imagines that she is Christ bearing his cross (29), but father gradually succeeds in suppressing the visions and daughter's ecstatic mood. The lighting becomes bluish, daughter takes off her golden armor, Reims cathedral sinks in smoke and fire (30). If you think this is silly and dramatically repetitive remember that Temistocle Solera's libretto provides nothing to work with. The directors' interventionist approach works very well.
In act IV father finally succeeds and daughter eventually crushes fully into reality (31 - 39). Deprived of her visions she is sapped of life and dies a slow, beautiful death, impressively staged in increasingly pervasive blue lighting, with images symbolizing both emotional impoverishment and spiritual ascent with intelligent, aesthetic touches. Very impressive.