Cher Public

Odd numbers

All of the operas of Giuseppe Verdi contain music that is worth hearing and can be rewarding in good performances. His seventh opera, Giovanna d’Arco,premiered at La Scala in 1845, is one of the least often performed these days. Renata Tebaldi made a radio broadcast, available as a recording, in 1951; there was a studio recording with Montserrat Caballe conducted by James Levine in the 70’s; a video of a production with Susan Dunn appeared in 1990; and June Anderson performed the role in concerts in New York and a stage production at Covent Garden in the 90’s.

Other than that performances have been few and far between, so this DVD from the Teatro Regio di Parma’s “Tutto Verdi” edition of Verdi’s complete operas to celebrate his bicentenary could be a welcome addition to the catalogue.  

The libretto by Temistocle Solera, who had written the texts for Verdi’s previous hits Nabucco and I Lombardi,is based on some elements from the story of Joan of Arc and seems to follow Schiller’s play Die Jungfrau von Orleans in departing from history by having Joan die not at the stake but of wounds received on the battlefield. (Solera declared he had not used Schiller as a source, a somewhat dubious claim.)

Perhaps this glaring contradiction with the very well known historical fact of Joan’s execution is one of the reasons for the opera’s neglect. It cannot be denied even by the most ardent Verdian however that there are certain passages in this early opera which raise a giggle or two at inappropriate moments.

Joan’s famous angelic voices are represented in the opera by a chorus of demons and of angels. The demons attempt to seduce Joan from her path of virtue with a cute waltz sung from offstage with the accompaniment of two cornets, a side drum and a tambourine. It must be the most undemonic demon music ever, it is exactly like something one would hear in a cafe in Naples. This waltz “Tu sei bella” became one of the hit tunes of the opera, which was quite successful in Verdi’s lifetime, although he was unhappy with La Scala’s presentation of it and did not offer the theatre another premiere of one of his works for another thirty six years.

The uncrowned French King Carlo has a vision of a maid who can help him save his country from the occupying English. He finds Joan and falls in love with her, but she has been warned by her voices to avoid worldly love. Joan’s father comes to the conclusion that she has sold her soul to Satan and denounces her as a witch. She is imprisoned and condemned to die, however she manages to escape her prison and drive the English from her country, but dies of wounds received in battle. Her repentant father and the King who loved her hail her as a saint as heavenly voices welcome her to paradise.

As in the previous Verdi/Solera works, the theme of freedom from foreign oppression features heavily. There are numerous grand choruses and an elaborate coronation scene with a stage band, trumpeters onstage, and a procession. The music for the heroine varies between warlike strength and lyricism and requires both power and agility.

This production by Gabriele Lavia with designs by Alessandro Camera and Andrea Viotti features a drop curtain with a huge painting of a cavalry charge. Sets are at times quite elaborate; other times there is virtually a bare stage. The coronation scene is visually splendid. The Renaissance style costumes and head dresses for the chorus are sumptuous and elaborate, but render the choristers immobile; they stand in rows and sing their music as if they were in a costumed oratorio. The demons’ waltz is made even more amusing than usual by the director choosing to have dancers come on stage in raggedly robes and furry masks with horns and waltz about onstage to the offstage chorus.

Not much sense of drama is engendered either on the stage or in the pit under the direction of senior Italian conductor Bruno Bartoletti, who leads the excellent orchestra in a performance that lacks “fire in the belly” which, as Verdi said, was the most essential quality for a conductor of his music. The introduction to the second scene, for instance, meant to depict a demon haunted wood, is very tame.

Renato Bruson as Giovanna’s father is a compelling stage presence and gives a touching performance. He can still offer some fine legato singing but the top part of his voice is worn and wobbly.

Tenor Evan Bowers as the King sings with wan lyricism without a trace of heroism, ardor or italianità. His dramatic performance amounts to projecting an air of affable bemusement. This, and his costume, made him seem to me as if he were playing Hilarion in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida.

Bulgarian soprano Svetla Vassileva looks the part and is obviously trying her best to act it, but unfortunately her voice has a metallic edge and her singing is raw, rough and ill-tuned on top notes. She improves somewhat as the show goes on and does manage some lovely quieter moments, notably her fourth act duet with Bruson.

Giovanna d’Arco is full of exciting and enjoyable music and I do recommend Verdi fans who have not heard it to try and do so but this performance does not make the best case for the work.

Far better is a thrilling performance of Verdi’s  ninth opera, Attila, at the Teatro Verdi di Busetto, in the town where Verdi was born and lived for most of his life. However it is still the company of the Teatro Regio di Parma, with their excellent orchestra and chorus, who are the performers. It is very interesting to see this opera house with its small stage used to present the work.

The production by Pierfrancesco Maestrini, with designs by Carlo Savi, makes imaginative use of video projections on to a screen at the back of an almost bare stage, and very effectively creates forests, storms at sea, landscapes devestated by invading Huns and the other locations rather than trying to create sets in the limited space. The young Italian conductor Andrea Battistoni proves himself already a true maestro when it comes to early Verdi, leading a performance full of energy, fire and soaring melody.

Attila is the fifth (and final) collaboration between the composer and librettist Temistocle Solera, who actively opposed the Austrian empire’s possession of parts of Italy and was imprisoned at one point for anti-Austrian resistance. As with several of his other pieces with Verdi, Attila,based on a play by German dramatist Zacharias Werner, deals with struggles of oppressed people against foreign invaders.

The brutal nature of the drama does not however allow for neat division of the characters into good and bad guys, with the Christians behaving treacherously and murderously and the Huns cheerfullly singing at the very beginning of the piece about how much they enjoy bloodshed, rape, pillage and arson.

Loosely based on the historical invasion of Italy by the Huns led by Attila in the the 5th century AD, Attila at the beginning of the piece is much taken by the warrior maiden Odabella, whose village he has destroyed, killing her father and separating her from her sweetheart Foresto. Attila admires her gutsy fighting spirit, gives her his sword and decides to keep her in his company.

The Roman general Ezio offers Attila a pact – let’s overthrow the Emperor, you can have everywhere else, let me have Italy. Atilla indignantly refuses this offer. Meanwhile Odabella’s lover Foresto has led refugees from Attila to safety, founding the new city of Venice. Attila is at the gates of Rome, but turns away in superstitious fear when the Pope warns him of divine wrath.

Foresto and Odabello are re-united and she explains that she is only consorting with Attila so as to have an opportunity to kill him. At a banquet, Foresto has poisoned Attila’s drink but Odabella, anxious not to let anyone else have the privilege of murdering Attila, saves his life. Attila makes her his wife, and on her wedding night, she stabs him to death with his own sword.

Attila is one of the early Verdi pieces which has been making its way back into the repertory over the last thirty years or so after a period of neglect. It has been performed in recent years at the Met, Covent Garden, San Francisco and many other major houses, often as a vehicle for a star bass, but the opera is far from being the bass’s show alone, with big arias and duets for the tenor, soprano and bass as well.

Giovanni Battista Parodi in the title role does not dominate the proceedings with a hugely charismatic star performance but he does perform the part to good effect. Baritone Sebastian Catana makes the most of “Dagli immortali vertici”, an aria of noble beauty and one of the highlights of the score. Catana is a strong presence throughout the show.

Handsome tenor Roberto De Biasio sings beautifully and is a big hit with the audience. There is real physical passion and a true feeling of sexual frisson between him and Susanna Branchini as Odabella in their duet together. She is playing a fierce warrior woman and she gives a fierce performance in another of the early Verdi soprano roles that require both coloratura agility and power.

Exotic and strong looking, she blasts away at her ferocious music with a power that must have shook the little Busetto opera house to its rafters. The voice is rather vibrato-heavy and tends to harden at the top, I would prefer more soft singing in the lovely romanza “Oh! Nel fuggente nuvolo” but a performance as feisty as this certainly holds the attention and those reservations become mere quibbles. Branchini’s exultation at the end when she has murdered Attila is really something to see.

The chorus is reduced in numbers for the small stage but makes an excellent effect. Costumes for the Roman characters are in period, with face painting and sort of a “heavy metal” look for the Huns. The most unfortunate thing about this performance is that for some reason when the singers come to the front of the stage their faces turn green and they look rather awful, whether that is due to bad lighting in the theatre or the filming I could not say.

Another minor quibble – the Pope’s wig and beard are so obviously fake and stuck on the singer’s head that they would disgrace a department store Santa Claus. The cabaletta repeats are not cut, which is as it should be, but, every one of these numbers is staged with the singer ducking into the wings after the first verse of the cabaletta, then dashing back on to sing the second.

There are two wonderful act finale ensembles in this opera as well as the thrilling and beautiful arias and duets, all ably led by the excellent conductor. The audience cheers the singers all the way through and gives them all prolonged ovations at the end. They obviously enjoyed every second of this performance from start to finish, and so did I.