In Review > International

Giovanna d’Arco

MILAN
Teatro alla Scala
12/15/16

In Review La Scala Giovanni lg 316
Netrebko as Verdi’s Giovanna at La Scala
© Brescia-Amisano/Teatro alla Scala

VERDI'S GIOVANNA D'ARCO  had its world premiere at La Scala in 1845 (with the composer himself at the keyboard) and was performed here successfully until 1865. The Teatro San Carlo in Naples unearthed the work for Renata Tebaldi in 1951, while more recent revivals have been staged in Bologna, Genoa and Parma—but not in Milan. There was thus a strong historic motivation behind Riccardo Chailly’s decision to inaugurate the 2015–16 season at La Scala with this unduly neglected work, and no expense was spared on the production. 

The cast was remarkable, especially when baritone Carlos Álvarez (Giacomo) rejoined Anna Netrebko (Giovanna) and Francesco Meli (Carlo VII) on December 15 after an indisposition had prevented his taking part in the first two performances. The result was the most vocally resplendent evening of Verdi singing heard here this century—and since the opera offers ample opportunities to display both technical skill and beauty of tone, the musical rewards were substantial. 

Netrebko combined timbral purity with tonal amplitude and a boldly sustained line across a very wide range. She also looked the part, even though her acting was less revealing in detail than when she sings Tchaikovsky or Puccini. The very luxuriance of her sound makes it hard for her to convey the spiritual inwardness of this medieval heroine, but it was wonderful to witness the ease with which she ascended above the staff and filled the auditorium with richly grounded overtones. Álvarez possesses a voice of similarly mellow beauty (skillfully modulated even in the highest register), and his voice blended movingly with the soprano’s in the last-act duet, perhaps the most inspired episode in the whole score. 

Meli, who has recorded the opera with Netrebko, is not quite so poised in technique as his colleagues (his breath support is less sturdy, and his soft singing sometimes veers uneasily toward falsetto), but he displays the sort of golden tone in cantabile that is seldom heard from Italian tenors nowadays. Meli’s ability to integrate stirringly articulated words within the smoothest of legato lines is impressive by any standard. Chailly, in the pit, offered impeccable support for the entire cast (which also included Dmitry Belosselskiy’s solid Talbot); under his leadership the score acquired a musical dignity and finish that it rarely achieves in more hastily mounted productions. The orchestral playing and choral singing were outstanding throughout.

In terms of their overall visual impact, the basic set devised by Christian Fenouillat—a nineteenth-century bedroom—and the largely medieval costumes designed by Agostino Cavalca proved neither ugly nor unmusical, but the narrative approach adopted by the directors, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier—which presented the plot as a product of the mentally disturbed imagination of a young woman living at the time of the opera’s composition—increased rather than diminished the psychological incongruities of Solera’s libretto. By presenting the story through eyes of Giovanna (Netrebko was onstage throughout the evening, even when she should have been leading the French soldiers to victory), the directors diminished the other characters (and the chorus, too—all-important in this opera) in their emotional autonomy and impact on the audience. The visionary strength of Joan of Arc herself was undermined by the directors’ stale reliance on Freudian classification and unwillingness to accept the heroine’s spiritual inspiration on its own terms.  —Stephen Hastings 

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