During the 2015-16 season, the Teatro alla Scala revived Verdi’s rarely performed opera “Giovanna d’Arco.” The opera, while never a standard piece of the repertoire, had a slight resurgence thanks to Renata Tebaldi and Monserrat Caballe in the mid 1900s. Other performers like Anna Moffo, Katia Ricciarelli, and Mariella Devia recorded the opening aria “Sempre all’alba.” But it was still rare to see a stage performance with a big diva.
But now opera lovers can enjoy a live showcase of Verdi’s rare gem in a DVD release thanks to Decca’s new Riccardo Chailly series from La Scala. It not only includes an all-star conductor but also a luxury cast.
When this production was conceptualized, Anna Netrebko was at the center of it all. Having just made her role debut in a concert version at the Salzburg Festival with rave reviews, it was a no-brainer that Netrebko would take on the leading role in her first and final production of the role at some point in her career.
And when she took it on critics praised the soprano for producing some of the best Verdi singing at La Scala in years. This DVD documents exactly that.
From the start of the performance, Netrebko takes command of the role, which in this production depicts a teenager with a disturbed mind. Each gesture in the soprano’s performance showcases a girl experiencing a sexual awakening as she lusts for her Golden king, while being repressed by her religious tendencies as seen in the opening aria “Sempre all’alba” when she grabs a statue of the Virgin Mary. We also see this in the tenor/soprano duet at the end of Act One as devilish figures begin to appear, encircling her and eventually making her sexual visions disappear. In a moment Netrebko also showcases the suicidal qualities of her character as she takes a knife to her neck during the aria “O Fatidica Foresta.” One could even say that the complete Act three is a mad scene as Netrebko’s character goes from hallucinating on a battlefield to fainting at the end as she says goodbye to mortality and hallucinates an Eden.
Vocally Netrebko is in top form on this DVD and one could argue tha she sounds more comfortable than in the acclaimed 2014 CD release from Salzburg. In her opening aria “Sempre All’Alba,” Netrebko plunges with great vocal force but mixes it with a gorgeous mezzoforte line that showcases a true bel canto line. And Netrebko also rises to the climatic C Sharp with ease, displaying her bright upper register. In her second aria “O Fatidica Foresta,” the soprano approaches the lines with more delicacy spinning the coloratura with exactitude. The sound easily blends with the flute accompaniment, making for a beautiful duet between the two.
In her duet with Francesco Meli, “T’arretri e palpiti” Netrebko and Meli’s chemistry is visible with each feeding off each other. Meli’s fluid legato and ardent line are contrasted by the more explosive, forte and articulated line of Netrebko’s. In the second part of the duet “Vieni al Tempio,” however, the voices take on the same textures, blending beautifully throughout the expansive passages all climaxing to a C Sharp for Giovanna. The other major highlight for Netrebko was the final concertato “S’apre il ciel.” Netrebko spun the lines with such delicacy flowing one into the other with breathtaking dynamic control and tone.
But it’s not all perfect, as is the case in her duet with baritone Carlos Alvarez. While Netrebko commands the first part “Amai, ma un solo istante” with lyricism and clean coloratura lines, the second portion “Or del padre Benedetta,” shows her struggling a bit to get through it. Visibly she hides it with her commitment to the role, but there are some pitchy and breathy moments that take away a bit from the overall effect of the duet and which were not present in the CD recording.
Despite those issues, this performance proves Netrebko’s commitment to the role and that her voice fits into Verdi’ music like a glove.
The Supporting Players
If Netrebko proves to be suited for this music, Alvarez is perfection as Giacomo. When the production originally opened in 2015, Alvarez canceled a few performances and was, therefore, not recorded during opening night. While David Cecconi proved to be a revelation in that performance, it is a gift for Decca to have waited and released a later performance with Alvarez.
The baritone has the timbre one has come to expect for Verdi. His flexible tone and creamy textures easily blended with Netrebko’s in their duet and trio that ends the prologue. His stage presence is also resilient as well as he shapes his character to perfection in this production’s interpretation. Alvarez reveals abusive qualities of a father exasperated and unable to control his daughter or her emotional state. In the concertato, he goes to the extreme of physical violence which is then contrasted with moments of tenderness in the Act three duet as he caresses and cares for his agonizing daughter.
But what makes his performance such a staple are his two arias. In his first Alvarez sings with command and force that give the musical passage the heroic qualities. But the second aria is a huge contrast. “Speme al vecchio era una figlia” features Alvarez in more lyrical tone. He sings with a passionate timbre highlighting the anguish and desperation of his character for his daughter. One can see it through his gentle gestures and pained facial expressions, his eyes emitting desperation.
As Carlo VII, Francesco Meli is painted in gold and is represented as a hallucination throughout, entering on his gold statue horse. He appears only to Giovanna. During the concertati and trios, Giovanna is the only one who can visibly seem him, while Giacomo and the chorus are always staring towards Giovanna trying to figure out what her problem is. While the concept sometimes seems to falter, particularly in the prologue aria where Carlo is all alone, Meli inhabits this hallucination to perfection. Throughout the production, he is always isolated from the rest of the characters and his only physical contact is with Giovanna. His duet at the end of Act one shows Giovanna struggling against his temptations before he disappears amongst the mob of goblins that appear to dissuade Giovanna from her sexual desires.
Vocally Meli sings with a gorgeous and smooth line that gives lyricism to Verdi’s music. His first aria “Sotto un quercia parvemi” is sung with an ardent and heroic timbre. Each line is connected with fluid movement and upper register that rings with a bright color. In the concertato “Compiuto e il rito” takes an authoritative and expressive quality to the voice that grows to soaring high notes. His Act three aria “Quale piu fido amico” however, is the total opposite. Here we hear a delicate tone with Meli singing a mezzoforte and giving Carlo’s suffering a subtlety that is both expressive but never over the top. Additionally, Meli blends his golden tone with the melancholic cello solo.
A Verdian leader
In the pit, Riccardo Chailly enjoys many refined moments, in particular, the overture which he leds with propulsive tempi but always sustaining the smooth Italianate style. He also gives the orchestra a heft and heroic quality, particularly in Giovanna’s first aria “Sempre all’alba,” always articulating the rhythm with precision. But Chailly’s biggest achievement is perhaps his leadership of the solo instruments. Both in Giovanna’s and Carlo’s second aria, the soloists are given the space and time to express within the constraint of the pieces. And both cellists and flutists easily blended with the voices of their given soloists.
Where Chailly falters is in some of his tempi. Where Verdi’s music can be bombastic and circus-like when not playing well it can also feel forced when played at a slow tempo. There has to be a balance of tempi and Chailly at some moments holds the orchestra back with slow and languid tempi that take away from the momentum of the music. The final concertato is one example as Chailly spreads each phrase out so much that the final chords sound labored. Another such instance is the second act concertato stretta where he holds back the tempo. Where it should feel like a climactic moment in the piece, the strained tempo gives it an underwhelming feel. And the other moment that should sound much more heroic and exciting is the stretta to the duet between Giovanna and Giacomo. Here Chailly’s tempo is languid and gives the exact circus-like sound that one tries to avoid in Verdi’s early music.
But despite of these faults, it has to be commended that Chailly brought back this piece and in doing so he also brought a critical edition eliminating the cuts that have become customary. In doing that he gives audiences Verdi’s vision for the work without pomp and circumstance and unnecessary high notes that can sometimes distract from what is important in the music.
A Broken Camera
The HD revolution has been a blessing but at the same time, it has also showcased the lack of good filmmaking in the opera world. While it has preserved many of today’s greatest artists and given audiences chances to see some of the best performers around the world, it has also brought out some of the most directionless editing in the history of cinema.
This video by Patrizia Carmine lacks any refinement. The most refined work is the labored three-minute opening credit sequence which at best is an incredibly nauseating experience of sound. There are too many musical selections chosen for the intro, almost as if she is trying to introduce everything into one moment. But it is ultimately ineffective.
And then the performance begins and instead of having the camera focus on the singer, there is a constant cutting from one to the other without any direction. I understand that it is necessary so the audience can get the full extent of the production but it is sometimes detrimental to the performer. The emotions of the singer are lost due to the constant cutting from one closeup to another. More problematic is when the singers are cut from a closeup to a wide shot where the singer is hardly visible.
And what is more troublng is the unsteadiness fo the camera. During the act one duet between Giovanna and Giacomo, there are pans to the goblins, which are unsteady and rapid seeming more like a mistake than something intentional. In some closeups of Anna Netrebko, the camera is also unsteady and sometimes unable to follow the soprano’s movements. One might argue that this was intentional due to the production’s theme, but again, it is not properly established as a visual leitmotif and comes off as accidental. There are also some zoom-ins that are also erratic during the trio and concert that make the experience a bit difficult.
The final issue is the overly long final credits. Like the opening, the music is cut erratically and the director decides to tell the audience the plot as if the audience had not paid attention to the two hours they had just seen. Why there was a need for such a long closing credit sequence is beyond me and why it was necessary to recap the whole work is also mindblowing.
But regardless of the unsatisfying filming, this is still a must-buy for all fans of Anna Netrebko and Verdi. It is a historic performance that preserves the music in its totality and which allows the viewer to get a glimpse of Verdi’s early period.