Giovanna d’Arco, Buxton Festival, July 2015Posted on 12 July 2015
This Verdi opera, like Rossini’s William Tell, is originally based on a play by Schiller that deals with a central heroic figure who rallies people and fighting men against an occupying force. Comparing mature Rossini to early Verdi one might expect the Rossini to win easily, yet by contrast with the Royal Opera’s current clunky and puerile production of William Tell, this is a breath of fresh air. In an auditorium less than half the size of Covent Garden, and at a small fraction of the expense, director Elijah Moshinsky has turned this opera with its run of the mill libretto into a superb theatrical experience. Bravo.
Russell Craig’s simple set along with Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting creates psychological spaces in which the drama can unfold, from the love interest between Giovanna and Carlo, king of France, to the central scene in Act II where her father Giacomo denounces her to the townsfolk as being in league with the devil. Not exactly the historical Joan of Arc whom the English captured and burned at the stake in 1431 aged 19, but it follows the theatrical line taken by Schiller, who brings her back wounded in battle to die on stage surrounded by her repentant father, the king et al. At this point Moshinsky cleverly pulls together different aspects of his production, rolling in the unconscious Giovanna on a gun carriage for the final moments where we see the demons high up in a stage balcony box bathed in red light, while the nun-like angels appear above her at the rear of the stage. Hugely effective.
As with the production, so with the singing. Australian soprano Kate Ladner in the title role was full of freshness and vigour for her first appearance in the forest during the Prologue, wonderfully powerful in her Act I soliloquy with its quiet ending, and dramatically convincing throughout. In Moshinsky’s unsentimental production her later refusal to answer her father Giacomo’s accusations betrayed a hidden failure in feeling love for Ben Johnson’s finely and nobly sung King, their glorious duet towards the end of the first part leading to the nun-like angels warning against worldly emotions.
Such nuances are lost on Giacomo, superbly sung by Devid Cecconi as a sadly noble shepherd who becomes increasingly agitated until his final mea culpa. Excellent performance too by the chorus, with a robust representation of the English soldiers commanded by the well-sung Talbot of Graeme Danby. And supporting the terrific Verdi singing of Ladner, Johnson and Cecconi, along with the well-wrought theatrical movements of this production was the Northern Chamber Orchestra under the excellent baton of Stuart Stratford, now Music Director of Scottish Opera.
A fully satisfying production and performance of an opera whose premiere at La Scala in 1845 so annoyed Verdi that he avoided the place for a good quarter century. Bravo Buxton.
Performances continue on various dates until July 24 — for details click here.