Saturday 18 July 2015

Verdi's Giovanna D'Arco

Ben Johnson (Carlo), Kate Ladner (Giovanna) and Chorus in Buxton Festival's Giovanna d'Arco. Photo (c) Jonathan Keenan
Ben Johnson (Carlo), Kate Ladner (Giovanna) and Chorus in Buxton Festival's Giovanna d'Arco. Photo (c) Jonathan Keenan
Verdi Giovanna d'Arco; Ben Johnson, Kate Ladner, Devid Cecconi, dir: Elijah Moshinsky, cond: Stuart Stratford; Buxton Festival at Buxton Opera Houe
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 17 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Verdi's fascinating yet flawed and rarely performed Joan of Arc opera

There were a number of people surprised by the end of the first part of Verdi's Giovanna d'Arco at the Buxton Festival on 17 July 2015. Not having read the plot synopsis, to find Ben Johnson's Carlo (King of France) declaring his love for Kate Ladner's Giovanna (Joan of Arc), and she responding. To enjoy Verdi's opera you have to forget the historical Joan and take the work on its own term.

Elijah Moshinsky's new production of Verdi's Giovanna d'Arco was a Buxton Festival production at the Buxton Opera House, designed by Russell Craig, with lighting by Malcolm Rippeth. Kate Ladner was Giovanna, Ben Johnson was Carlo, Devid Cecconi was Giacomo (Giovanna's Father) and Graeme Danby was Talbot (the English commander). Stuart Stratford conducted the Northern Chamber Orchestra.

Kate Ladner (Giovanna) and Chorus in Buxton Festival's Giovanna d'Arco. Photo (c) Jonathan Keenan
Kate Ladner.
Photo (c) Jonathan Keenan
The opera was premiered at La Scala in 1845. Verdi's librettist, Temistocle Solera, had written a number of other librettos for Verdi and based the piece loosely on Schiller's play Die Jungfrau von Orleans which itself makes number of changes to history. Elijah Moshinsky and Russell Craig took the piece seriously on its own terms and ensured that we would too.

Verdi's operas of this period are indebted to Donizetti, but his vocal writing for the soprano soloist requires quite to more heft to it (what the soprano Nelly Miricioiu referred to in a lecture as bite). Giovanna d'Arco is particularly engaging for the use of chorus, as Verdi has Giovanna's voices embodied by good and bad choruses which give the piece its own rather appealing texture.

Elijah Moshinsky's production was highly sympathetic both to the restricted size of the Buxton stage and to the young voices performing the work. Russell Smyth had designed a fixed abstract black set which shiny walls which were able to reflect the action and to take video projections. The set did not go to the top of the stage, which meant that the good and bad choruses could appear at the top and sing to Giovanna. Within this limited palate, Russell Smyth created some highly atmospheric scenes for an opera where most of the action takes place off stage.

Verdi seems to have been mainly interested in the relations between the characters rather than the grand historical sweep, and particularly the taxing relations between Giovanna and her father who believes her a witch and denounces her to the English, but relents at the end.

MAIN Kate Ladner (Giovanna) and Ben Johnson (Carlo) in Buxton Festival's Giovanna d'Arco. Photo (c) Jonathan Keenan
Kate Ladner and Ben Johnson.
Photo (c) Jonathan Keenan
Giovanna is a taxing role and Kate Ladner made a brave attempt. She took some time to hit form, and it was only when she received the sword from Carlo (Ben Johnson) did Kate Ladner seem to find the right vocal brilliance. She was a highly personable and believable Giovanna, and was moving in the moments when Giovanna has her doubts. Her relationship with her father is by and large played out with the two separated, and it is only at the end that the two have a long and moving duet. The more heroic moments found Kate Ladner sometimes over taxed, the role requires a very particular combination of weight and flexibility which has troubled many a soprano. But she made it work thanks to a strong personal presence, and a sense of the tug between secular and sacred.

It helped that Ben Johnson as Carlo sang with finely mellifluous tones and a virile sense of Verdian line. There were a couple of moments when it seemed that his voice does not yet quite have the right weight for the role, and he admirably did not push. Carlo is in fact rather a wet character, and Ben Johnson seemed to be aiming for a sort of stiff nobility, which crumbled in the big romantic scene with Kate Ladner's Giovanna. And along the way we got some very beautiful singing.

It was, however, Devid Cecconi who seemed to have just the right Verdian credentials, singing with a wonderfully full, supported line and vibrant sense of the music's shape.He used these to coruscating effect in a series of solos and interventions as he struggled with the fact that he believed his daughter a witch and wanted to betray her to the enemy. He made the final scene very moving, with duet with Ben Johnson's Carlo as well as Kate Ladner's Giovanna.

The smaller roles were strongly taken, with Graeme Danby as a vigorous Talbot. The hard working chorus could probably have done with having a few more singers, but they made a virile brave job at Verdi's choruses singing out lustily, and the chorus of red-clad and rather sexy devils clearly was having great fun. In the first scene where they appear to Giovanna I was under the impression that the choruses were off stage (Verdi uses harmonium and harp to accompany them backstage), but here they were present on stage, and the electric organ used to accompany them sounded nothing like a harmonium.

In the pit Stuart Stratford whipped the Northen Chamber Orchestra up into brilliant form, creating the sort of vibrant oom-pah which Verdi of this period needs. All played with such brilliant conviction that you did not notice the bits where Verdi was clearly just vamping till ready.

Giovanna d'Arco is a flawed, uneven work but Elijah Moshinsky and Stuart Stratford ensured that we had a performance which took the work on its own terms, and performed with vim, vigour and a degree of sympathy to create an exciting evening in the theatre.

Elsewhere on this blog:

  • Lesser known but rewarding: Palestrina's Missa L'Homme Arme from the Sixteen - Cd review
  • Brilliant exploration: Romaria: Choral Music from Brazil - CD review
  • Thoughtful Bastille Day: Arcangelo at the Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • Charm overload: Music for Piano and Harp - CD review
  • Finely satisfying: Eugene Onegin at Grange Park Opera - Opera review
  • An alternative view: Iberian Colours from the Maria Camahort Quartet - CD review
  • Intriguing timbral world of Matthew Whiteside in Dichroic Light - CD review
  • Real Charm Populaires with Amel Brahim-Djelloul - CD review
  • Disappointing Guillaume Tell at Covent Garden - Opera review
  • Fraternal bond: Rameau's Castor et Pollux - Cd review
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