Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Mad Maiden of Orleans

Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco
Teatro alla Scala, Milan
December 23, 2015

Giovanna bears her cross triumphantly.
Photo credit: Brescia-Amisano/Teatro alla Scala
Lei: It’s always exciting to go to a show at La Scala where so many of the operas we love first debuted. This time even more so because Verdi’s Giovanna D’Arco was being performed again at La Scala 150 years after it was last staged there (in 1865, 20 years after its 1845 debut). And it’s not like it’s a La Scala issue, this opera is really rarely seen at any house around the world. Part of the reason seems to be the difficulty of finding singers able to tackle it. Which made this show all the more exciting. Vocal excellence! “New” Verdi! La Scala glamour! (and the pre-show Marchesino aperitivo with its cups of risotto alla Milanese remain a solid plus).

Lui: A much anticipated return to Milan’s Teatro alla Scala for the second installment in our holiday season opera tourism, this time for another rarity, a young Giuseppe Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco. Only his seventh opera, it’s really not the product of a green Verdi. Giovanna comes on the heels of Nabucco and Ernani and will be followed by Macbeth and Un ballo in maschera, among others, in quick succession.

Giovanna looks on as the king of her dreams is deposed.
Photo credit: Brescia-Amisano/Teatro alla Scala
Lei: First things first, here’s a recap of the little known plot, which diverges significantly from both the Schiller source material as well as history. We’re in medieval France, during the infamous Franco-Anglo Hundred Years’ War. Enter the king, Carlo (Charles VII), very worried that his troops may be defeated soon by the Brits and ready to give up his crown. He had a dream where mysterious voices told him to go into the forest and lay his sword and armor by a certain oak tree.

A father begins to suspect malfeasance.
Photo credit: Teatro alla Scala
The scene moves to the forest, where our pious maiden Giovanna lives with her intransigent and paranoid peasant father, Giacomo. Giovanna very much wants to fight with the French army and prays fervently to the Virgin Mary to procure her a sword and a helmet (una spada ed un cimiero). What a happy coincidence that the king left all his armaments next to the oak tree! So Giovanna is torn between demonic and angelic voices giving her conflicting instructions, but ends up happily putting on soldier gear and convincing the king to fight back. Her father is suspicious of all this and thinks she sold her soul to the devil.

Under Giovanna’s lead, the French crush the British in battle and the king and his lady-warrior fall in love, though Giovanna continues to hear voices and feels very sinful about the whole love thing. While everybody’s happy celebrating the victory, Giacomo publicly denounces his daughter of lustful behavior and witchcraft. Her terrified silence is seen as an admission and she’s turned to the English. When Giacomo hears her piously pray in the Brits’ prison, he understands her righteousness, frees her and even gives her his sword so that she can go back to battle. French army definitively wins, Giovanna dies on the battlefield and ascends to heaven in saintly fashion, the king and her father despair.

Giovanna in ecstasy.
Photo credit: Teatro alla Scala 
Lui: The production by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier was impactful and thought provoking. In their take, the protagonist is a disturbed young woman who has been transposed from the French Middle Ages to nineteenth-century institutional setting with a vaguely Freudian underpinning. Apparently suffering from some sort of schizophrenic hysteria induced by profound daddy issues, she aspires in her mind to a life of glory in the vein of Joan of Arc. And so, everything takes place in the confines of her room in the psychiatric ward, with armies, angels, demons, churches and statuesque equestrian kings all appearing as a series of vivid feverish visions.

Packing all this action into such a contained space emphasizes that everything is seen from Giovanna’s point of view. It’s all in her head. Rather than being a cop out, it is actually a clever trick to intensify the shaky plot of the opera. One of the ideas that inspired the directors were a series of early studies of hysteria conducted in the nineteenth century, documented by pictures of disturbed women going through extreme mood swings, including ecstatic contemplation. Interestingly, some historians have hypothesized that Joan of Arc’s saintly visions and voices were in fact due to some sort of mental illness (though many medical professionals disagree with such a diagnosis).

The patriarchy repents.
Photo credits: Teatro alla Scala
Lei: I wish I had seen a “traditional” Giovanna before in order to better appreciate the nuances and ideas of this one. The directors’ premise is that this libretto (based on Schiller’s Jungfrau von Orleans) has little to do with the historical character and is full of narrative holes (motivations of characters are not really fully developed), which gives them the freedom and even some grounds to interpret the story as the tale of a hysterical young lady having all sorts of Giovanna d’Arco visions and stories in her head.

The visionary hears voices.
Photo credit: Brescia-Amisano/Teatro alla Scala
There’s no doubt that Solera’s libretto diverges quite a lot from history: Giovanna is torn between angelic and demonic “voices” (when she really only heard saints and angels and was always adamant about her sacred mission), she has a love story with the king Carlo (totally historically ungrounded), she is condemned by a bigot father (false again, she was subject to inquisition by the church at the request of the English) and she dies on the battlefield (though everybody knows she was burnt at the stake).

And so, the libretto’s propelling emotional forces are the love between Giovanna and Carlo and, most importantly, the oppressive and obsessive father-daughter relationship of Giacomo and Giovanna. Leiser and Caurier’s psychoanalytical take made the dramatic tensions even more about sexual frustration (Giovanna wants Carlo but her father and the angelic voices pull her back) being the propeller for the heroine’s heroic deeds in the name of God.

Giovanna gives in to her baser desires.
Photo credit: Teatro alla Scala
Lui: I’m torn as to whether or not the production hit the nail on the head or just confounded matters unnecessarily. At the core the story in the libretto is relatively straightforward for an opera. It takes certain liberties with time and place but the general narrative flow only slightly borders on the avant-garde or surreal. Even the central father-daughter relationship is par for the course for Verdi, despite its unhealthy fixation on her virginity.

The production here takes those mildly avant-garde elements of time lapse and interiority and runs with them. On the whole I found the poetic license of the directors to be engaging and very satisfying, making the whole thing very deep and Freudian. Really poor Giovanna is a young woman repressed by her father. At the same time, there is a Don Quixote approach to the story where this simple peasant girl aspires to battlefield glory in the name of God and for the good of her country.

The religious warrior suits up.
Photo credit: Teatro alla Scala
In fact, in moments, as in the end of Act I, where she prays for the guidance of the Virgin Mary in her early quixotic desire to wage holy war against her enemies and to vindicate the king, I couldn’t help but think that the directors were also subtly drawing parallels with the religious warmongers of today. Giovanna has delusions of grandeur. Although her heart is seemingly in the right place, her desires are out of step with reality for a poor girl kept under lock and key by her father in some kind of convalescent ward. It was heartbreaking, oneiric, often surreal, and very intelligently carried out.

Lei: The orchestra was incredibly electric. I’ve never heard anything quite like it and from the first fiery bars of the overture when, after the soft start, the orchestra attacks the military triumphal themes, I didn’t know what hit me. So vigorous, fiery and intense. My first thought was that they were all on steroids, including maestro Riccardo Chailly who sported the energy of someone half his age. We were in very good musical hands. The pacing was thrilling. The opera sped along on overdrive, which contributed to the haunted feeling that Giovanna is not well, not in her right mind, but possessed, especially since the orchestra itself felt possessed.

Riccardo Chailly on fire.
Photo credit: Teatro alla Scala
Lui: The score was just fantastic, packed with sensational and breathtaking musical moments carrying a very fast paced plot. It was fun to discover that Giovanna contains a lot of Verdian musical nuggets that the composer will develop more fully in later operas. Most of the demonic bits reminded me of Macbeth, particularly in the forest and storm sequences with the forest chorus sounded a lot like Macbeth’s witches. Other times, Un Ballo in Maschera, Ernani and Traviata also come to mind. And so, Rossini was not the only one to “recycle” bits of his operas...

Lei: Verdi’s use of the chorus in Giovanna d’Arco is extraordinary. In this opera more than others the narrative importance of the chorus (magnificently lead by maestro Bruno Casoni) came across, making it really the fourth protagonist. It wore so many hats: poor folk, people broken by war, “voices” of demons and angels, British soldiers and French courtiers. The “voices” are particularly important as they play a central role in pushing Giovanna to action (and then martyrdom), even more in this production where everything is just in her head.

The chorus is an all-encompassing presence.
Photo credit: Brescia-Amisano/Teatro alla Scala
Lui: On stage and/or just off stage but still heard, they really do fill the role of something like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. They push the plot forward without actually becoming agents in the plot. They comment and they inflict themselves through moralizing or lazing or tormenting the protagonists in some of the most novel ways that I have ever seen in an opera, almost borrowing moves from Aeschylus’ Eumenides. The very particular way the chorus was dislocated in this production was pretty sensational too. I am still trying to figure out where the off-stage singers were as many times the voices felt like they were coming from the prima galleria. These unusual staging decisions added to the eerie surreal take on the story as a whole. I loved it. It produced such a unique musical experience.

Giovanna is tossed in a sea of torments.
Photo credit: Brescia-Amisano/Teatro alla Scala
Lei: The core cast was sensational. The three leads were extremely strong, with perfect voices for their roles. Anna Netrebko keeps getting better each time we see her. She displayed a superb vocal range and convincingly portrayed the fiery warrior but also the loving and mystical maiden, inspired and idealistic (and very cuckoo too). She’s always had power but now her sound is cleaner purer and her Italian more articulate. In fact, the Russian soprano sounded much better tonight than in her live recording of this same opera only two years ago in Salzburg. It is exciting to see such a great artist grow over the years. Netrebko’s acting was very specific and demanding, as she basically was always on stage one way or the other given the directors’ choice to have this be all in her head. She bounced around with youthful energy and intensely rendered Giovanna’s swings from crazed demented girl to warrior to determined martyr.

Declarations of love.
Photo credit: Teatro alla Scala
Francesco Meli as Carlo may be my new favorite tenor. He has a beautiful effortless sound, round and ardent, fills the space with a lyricism that’s very powerful too, as he held strong next to Netrebko (who usually drowns everybody out). As the gold plated king who had just descended from his equestrian statue mount, he was incredibly gripping. The whole opening three numbers are all his and he set the tone with an urgency that carried us through the rest of the night.

Verdian baritone Carlos Alvarez as Giacomo displayed a smooth legato, long lines and a wonderful musicality. His role of the paranoid almost demonic father is a complex one and he embodied it expressively, particularly touching in his final act of repentance when he realizes he entirely misunderstood his daughter. Bass Dmitry Beloselskiy in the minor role of Talbot, the English general had an impressive stage presence (he’s extraordinarily tall and muscular) and an even more astonishing voice, deep and dynamic yet extremely strong and effortless, riding with ease over the orchestra and chorus.

The patriarch who cannot be trusted.
Photo credit: Brescia-Amisano/Teatro alla Scala
Lui: The sets created by Christian Fenouillat were deceptively simple as they had as a base Giovanna’s room (with very few pieces of linear furniture), but as the plot unfolds all of the protagonist’s visions come to life in that same room. And that’s when the exciting stuff happens: the chorus popped out now behind transparent portions of the walls at the ground level now up above next to the ceiling, soldiers and spears broke through the walls during battle scenes, very vivid videos of lusty desires and saintly aspirations scrolled slowly across the walls, the massive cathedral of St. Denis emerged from the floor to then descend in thunder at the end of Act III, the statuesque golden king emerged from a trapdoor on his gold horse (very much like a monumental equestrian statue, as that’s how Giovanna imagines her ruler). And the very clever touch of having everybody but Giovanna and her father disappear as half of the stage literally sinks underground at the end of Act IV when she’s about to die and all her visions fade away.

A daughter burns at the stake in her mind.
Photo credit: Teatro alla Scala
Costumes by Agostino Cavalca very equally clever: all characters wore medieval clothes except for Giovanna’s father who, like her, belonged in the nineteenth century, emphasizing how the true and very troublesome dramatic core of the opera is the father/daughter relationship. And Giovanna, who navigates reality and fiction, had the most fluid and feverish transformation on stage during Act I: one moment she is a lost long-locked girl in a nightgown, the next she is cutting her hair, shredding her gown to a short tunic and donning gold armor and a helmet right over the top of her bed clothes, proudly pointing a sword towards the audience.
Una spada ed un cimier
Photo credit: Teatro alla Scala
Lei: I have never seen the merciless and hard to please public at La Scala go so unanimously wild with love and appreciation for all of the performers, musicians and directors. Maybe it was because Giovanna d’Arco is little known and rarely performed (and so the public does not have the tools to trash it like it does with more mainstream repertoire). Whatever the reason, this time there was none of the hooligan-like loggionisti behavior booing and shouting colorful insults left and right, rather, people were outdoing each other yelling “Brrrr-aviiiii!!!” at the top of their lungs and literally going crazy calling the cast back at least three times even after final bows. Not even at the stadium do you see such ardent displays of love and support! And that in itself was the most sensational and surprising sight of the evening.

– Lei & Lui

Unleash the ovations!
Photo credit: Teatro alla Scala
Giovanna's spirit rides on... and on.
Photo: Place des Pyramides in Paris, France

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