Giuseppe Verdi was so unhappy with the first production of his Giovanna d’Arco at La Scala in 1845 that he swore an oath to himself that he would never entrust that theatre with a prima again. His other vow was to never speak with the impresario Bartolomeo Merelli after he oversaw what Verdi considered a substandard mounting and then had the audacity to sell the rights of the score out from under him to Ricordi. La Scala waited twenty-four years, until the Italian revision of his La Forza del Destino, before he finally relented.
In his letters Verdi seems almost overly proud of his accomplishments with Giovanna despite its lukewarm critical and public reception. The play by Friedrich Schiller on which it is loosely based had already been set on the lyric stage with success by more than a handful of composers. Over the years, and in spite of the best efforts of some tremendously gifted sopranos including Renata Tebaldi, Teresa Stratas (the American premiere in 1966), Montserrat Caballé, Margaret Price, June Anderson, Susan Dunn, and Anna Netrebko, Verdi’s version of St.Joan has just never managed to hold either the stage or the public’s imagination.
Still sopranos remain drawn to the work with its broad juxtaposition of angelic arching vocal lines and passionate militarism with another of those special father/daughter relationships that fascinated the composer throughout his career. The latest to assume the mantle is Jessica Pratt, from whom I have had great enjoyment previously with video performances from the Rossini Festival in Pesaro. Ms. Pratt has subsisted on a steady diet of lyric-coloratura roles for the first decade of her international career and I was intrigued to see how she would fare in something that required a little more metal.
Performed as part of the 29th Valle d’Itria Festival in the town of Martina Franca, this production, with minimal sets and costumes, is presented in the courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale in the city center. A simple double flight of stairs stage right over a large platform with three arched doorways below are the only set piece and the singers can also enter from the rear at the top of the platform.
The Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia is led by Riccardo Frizza, who prompts a compelling and spirited rendition of the opening Sinfonia (parts of which foreshadow the composer’s work for the storm scene in the last act of Rigoletto). He keeps things moving with the full fire of post-Donizettian vigor throughout the evening and offers lively tempos balanced with a keen eye to stewarding his singers and chorus through the sometimes tricky rhythms the young Verdi employs.
Maestro Frizza also knows when and how to draw the pathos from the more cantabile moments, not just hammering his way recklessly through the score, and he pays the utmost attention to the musical structure. The Orchestra does an highly professional job of meeting all of Verdi’s challenges with good pizzicato strings when called for and exceptional work from the woodwinds when they represent Giovanna’s “angels/demons”.
The opening chorale “Qual v’ha speme” is a fine example of why Verdi’s gift for ensemble first brought him notice but sadly the chorus of the Teatro Petruzzelli gets off to a rocky start. Many members wildly off pitch and out of synch at their scattered entrance until they finally get musically together when they are physically together. Things get righted fairly quickly from there. While I wouldn’t call their contribution to the evening polished per se they do sing with good, full tone and offer strong support in the grand finale of Act II for which they are all holding their music(?)
We are first introduced to our tenor playing Carlo (Charles) VII of France Jean-Francois Borras. Rare is the singer who achieves the stage in full command of their instrument. Most of them require at least a few pages (if not an entire act; don’t make me name names) to get their sea legs under them. This gentleman proves no exception. He has an honest, unforced, bantamweight tenor and in his initial cavatina displays a good line with some fetching melisma but he’s tentative in even the simplified cadenza he’s given. He works up to medium-fierce for the cabaletta but ultimately is let down by an audience that distinguishes itself all night long by never quite knowing where to clap.
Then Ms. Pratt takes the stage as Giovanna and we have definitely arrived safely at the border of Divaland. Verdi wrote the title role for the formidable Erminia Frezzolini who just the previous year had created Giselda in his I Lombardi alla prima crociata. A pupil of Manuel Garcia she was also a renowned Beatrice di Tenda in Bellini’s opera and highly regarded in the title roles in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Anna Bolena. We can only hope Ms. Pratt continues in her footsteps.
She too finds challenges in her opening aria with the vocal calisthenics of the youthful Verdi. Luckily she has a Ph.D in Bel Canto studies and graduated from the school of “no note left behind.” She displays a firm but limpid line all evening long with long breadth phrasing and scrupulous attention to detail. She shows herself equal to the task at all times, even throwing a high D in alt into the cadenza finale of the duet with the tenor. In her death scene, after having managed an evening full of all manner of runs, graces, and slurred staccatos, she’s positively glorious.
Julian Kim plays Giovanna’s father Giacomo who’s primarily concerned with the damnation of her mortal soul since he’s convinced her “angels” are demons and that she’s been compromised by the King. Oh you knew there was a baritone lurking about here somewhere. He starts a little on the bloodless side but warms up considerably as the evening progresses, so much so that by the time he’s denouncing Giovanna in the coronation scene as being one of the Devil’s own he’s bringing the Verdi baritone thunder.
As to staging and the costumes the less said the better. Stage director Fabio Ceresa seems intent on contradicting the libretto at every opportunity. You have the tenor at once point sing the words, “I kneel before you” to Giovanna fully fifty feet away from her and up a flight of stairs He also has Giovanna’s “demons,” which are five leather clad men, take her down on the forest floor and simulate unspeakable acts on her personage.
As to the costumes of Massimo Carlotto I can only assume that he was summoned to the festival director’s office and given a budget of $150 to clothe 30 people. Why else would the majority of the cast be walking around swathed in cloaks run up in what looks to be Hefty trash bags? Giovanna and Carlo come off all right even if they are done up as Robin and Maid Marian and there’s stuff at the Disney Store that’s more detailed and less relentlessly polyester. Poor Mr. Kim is encumbered by the worst of the hideous cloaks, of such immense length that he looks like a paratrooper who was just been dropped behind enemy lines.
My hat is off however to the audio team of Rino Trasi and Giuseppe Famularo. Not only are the orchestra and singers captured crisply and in excellent relation to each other in Dolby Digital 5.1 but they’ve done so when there was apparently a category one Sirocco blowing through Martina Franca the entire evening.
So a strong presentation musically but really nothing for the drama. In spite of a perfectly adequate tenor and baritone it’s really Ms. Pratt’s evening and those among us who count themselves among her fans will continue to cheer her triumphs. This performance has also been made available on CD only so perhaps that’s the way to go.
Gioachino Rossini was nothing if not a canny marketer of his own formidable skills. In 1818 the first performance of his oratorio Mosè in Egitto was given at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. Rossini wrote to his mother that he was highly satisfied with his own work but wasn’t certain,”these macaroni-eaters will get it.” Six years later when he was appointed the director of the Théatre Italien in Paris he set about very astutely and deliberately to win over la publique by means of exploiting their own weakness for Meyerbeerian choral grandeur and tableau majestique.
First he refashioned his Maometto Secondo, which had not found favor in either Naples or in revision in Venice, into Le Siège de Corinthe winning both popular and critical approval. Then he made a banquet of his Moses oratorio by commissioning a rewriting of the libretto en Francais and inflating its modest three acts to fully four with ballet. Paris at the time being enthralled with all things Egyptian flocked to the Biblical spectacle of the plagues and the grand finale with the parting of the Red Sea. Re-titled Moïse et Pharaon, ou Le passage de la Mer Rouge it opened in March of 1827 and held the stage for nearly 40 years.
Obviously the Milanese enjoy their Moses en Rossini because someone came up with the brainstorm of staging it inside the Duomo in conjunction with last year’s Expo Milano. Apparently they staged Verdi’s I Lombardi on the roof in 2011 (?) and it was such a success that they’ve now moved inside for the Old Testament where it was filmed for posterity.
When this new release from our friends at C-Major arrived, I saw only a brisk running time listed of 90 minutes. Since Msr. Rossini was so adept at tailoring his works for audience appeal I wasn’t surprised in the least to discover that he fashioned a ADHD version at some point for somewhere. But nay, this abridgement was molded, not by the holy hand of the composer but, by an unnamed someone with the intent of not testing the musical patience of the audience. Further the edition takes its bleeding chunks from the Italianized adaptation of Rossini’s Paris version where the vocal line had been scrubbed of most of its bel canto delicacies in favor of the long romantic line.
The raison d’etre of this performance is apparently two-fold: A) to show off the amazing visual technology that allows the computer graphics company Unità C1 to digitally paint the interior of the cathedral like it’s Egypt in 1200 BC, and B) to give Ruggero Raimondi a job.
Maestro Raimondi, I am happy to report, is in fine fettle for a man of 75-years and covers himself in glory throughout the evening. His voice is firm and resonant and astonishingly robust. Not only during the declamatory portions of the role but the accompanied recitative of which there are many.
The only signs of age I noted were in the solo cantabile moments where his tone was perhaps less firm than it was 40 years ago (!) when he started singing this part. I’m more than willing to cut him some slack. In spite of his great skill as a Rossini interpreter however the cuts in this performance edition make this more of a guest appearance than an actual traversal of the operatic Moses.
The remaining cast members never rise to the level of their esteemed colleague. Bogdan Mihai as Elisero, Moses’ brother, and Luciano Ganci as Pharaoh’s son Amenofi both display fine and bright voices with a clean line and reliable pitch. The formidable Isabelle Kabatu as the Pharaoh’s wife Sinaide seems to be warming up to an Abigaille (if she hasn’t already). She actually gets to keep her Act II aria, ’Ah! d’un’afflitta il duolo’ and woe to anyone who stands in her way. As the Pharaoh Filippo Polinelli suffers the worst of the cuts of all the major characters. He does however display an attractive voice in ensemble. Which brings us to the Anaide, Moses’ niece, of Lydia Tamburrino who’s simply a pain in the ears and there I will stop.
We all know what the average acoustic inside a church sounds like, but the Duomo di Milano is to churches what the Grand Canyon is to gorges. There are probably smaller sports arenas. Sadly it’s also like a sonic hall of mirrors with such a massive amount of reverb that no amount of knob twirling by the audio engineers can remedy the situation easily.
The Maestro Francesco Quattrocchi does his best to keep his tempos clean but it’s a bit of a losing battle from the beginning because of the acoustic. The ensemble is the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo di Milano Orchestra and Chorus and they play with good intention but many of the details and graces are lost into the nearly infinite spaces around them. The chorus is relegated to the sides of the playing area and are heard but literally never seen.
The costumes of Franca Squarciapino are done in the broad style of the Arena di Verona: simple robes for the men and women in Moses’ family, with nly Pharaoh and his wife granted any bling.
As to the digital projections, when the tenor sings of the stars falling from the heavens we see them gently descending. When Pharaoh finally releases the Hebrew slaves great chain links slide down the columns and shatter in half. There are also, unfortunately, quite a few moments of, ‘What is that?’ because the columns and nave are already so over crusted with much gothic detail and statuary there’s hardly a flat surface for anything to read on.
So this is really more rock concert than opera performance and because of the serious cuts and problems with the sound it’s a tough recommendation to anyone who isn’t a super fan of Raimondi.