OPERA NEWS - Giovanna d’Arco
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Giovanna d’Arco

Buxton Festival

THE ANNUAL OPERA FESTIVAL located in the pleasantly old-fashioned Derbyshire spa town of Buxton was founded in 1979. In its palmiest years, the event managed to present three productions of its own at the town’s central Opera House (built in 1903), as well as hosting guest productions by other companies there or at a nearby venue.. 

Both last year and this, however, the festival’s own stagings were down to two, plus an ancillary concert performance: the main events of the 2015 program were Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (coincidentally the first opera presented at the festival thirty-six years ago) and—in concert—Gustave Charpentier’s Louise

It is probably fair to say that Verdi’s Joan of Arc opera, which premiered at La Scala in 1845 and was revived in Buxton on July 11, is one of his least admired works. Verdi scholar David Kimball has written of it, “no opera illustrates more disconcertingly […] the chasm between Verdi’s best and worst music.” In addition, it suffers from a libretto (partly based on Schiller, no less) that seems bizarre to those who know something of the real history of the French female medieval warrior. 

In the opera, for instance, Joan has an entirely non-historical romance with Carlo (the Dauphin, and following his coronation in Rheims cathedral, the French king, Charles VII). Instead of her gruesome historical execution at the stake, meanwhile, we witness her sudden escape from prison to the battlefield (engineered by her father, who has hitherto been Joan’s chief persecutor), followed by her fatal wounding and eventual death as a victorious warrior in battle. Frankly, the result at times verges on the dramatically preposterous, while the mixed quality of Verdi’s music cannot entirely save it.

The Buxton production was the work of veteran Elijah Moshinsky, collaborating with designer Russell Craig, whose set surrounded a central acting space with mirrors and which made a feature of costumes of different periods in what is (or at least purports to be) an opera with a specific historical basis. Acting values throughout were indifferent, and vocal standards distinctly uneven.

In the title role, Australian soprano Kate Ladner was plagued by uncertain intonation and uneven tone; it’s a challenging undertaking, and was clearly a struggle for the artist on this occasion. Far more assured was English tenor Ben Johnson as Carlo, his fluent, appealingly lyrical tone and confident musicality gaining him genuine success in the part. The evening’s leading vocalist, though, was high-powered baritone Devid Cecconi as Joan’s father, Giacomo—a character in a permanent state of inner conflict and the most interesting of the three principal roles in that respect—who offered a convincing realization of a stereotypically standard Verdi baritone assignment.   

The secondary roles were acceptably done, but the evening’s best music-making came from the Buxton Festival Chorus and the Northern Chamber Orchestra, whom conductor Stuart Stratford held together in what proved to be a dynamic display of early Verdian style and substance. —George Hall

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