Giuseppe Verdi: Giovanna d’Arco (1845)

Opera in a prologue and three acts. Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes.

PLOT: France, 1429. France is being attacked by the English and King Charles VII is afraid he will never be crowned but low and behold Giovanna arrives, only to be captured by the English but then released by her not so friendly father Giacomo and she dies as a result of wounds on the battlefield.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VhUkXlcXzuY

REVIEW:

PROLOGUE (38 minutes)

SCENE 1: A room in a royal residence, somewhere in France.

0: The overture *, actually starts off rather well with the strings brooding about below and then orchestral explosion (a bit like Verdi’s storm music in Rigoletto). There is some good woodwind work but then this bouncy march comes which is a little reprehensible. The opening chorus is really not that impressive and is oddly sedate. Charles arrives and relates a vision he has had telling him to surrender to the English and lay down his arms at the foot of a large oak tree.  The chorus responds with a sinister sounding chorus which tries way to hard to be relevant.  The second aria for Charles, in which he worries about how stressful it is to be a king, is a little too happy. The scene fades away.

SCENE 2: Before a huge oak tree.

26, 33: Verdi storm music, sort of like in Attila but not as good and for not as long, leads to some mildly threatening recitative from Giovanna’s father Giacomo praying for his daughter before she herself arrives. Her prayer * is rather sweet but doesn’t seem to match the warring image one would expect. Charles arrives but then a chorus of demons (soprano/tenor/bass) comes on in the distance singing an incredibly jolly and bizarre little ditty only to be beaten back in turn by some angels (altos) who ask the sleeping Giovanna to take up the sword in defence of LA FRANCE *. It is also of such a low voltage that it could not be of any but curio interest and yet, it will return. It isn’t horrible, but does it belong here? Giovanna awakens declaring she will be victorious and sees Charles, her father thinks she is demonically possessed and much of this is a cappella but there is one racing tune burst out twice before the end of the scene.

ACT 1 (25 minutes)

SCENE 1: The English Camp.

0: The English troops are supposed to be unhappy, but you would never guess from the happy little ditty they sing *.

3: Giacomo come on and offers to give his daughter up to the English because he believers her to be evil, but he does it to the most heartwarming (non-tragic) tune * that isn’t comedic you could ever imagine. The English agree with him and then he limps around to an almost happy melody for the remainder of the scene. The scene just comes off as too jovial and it is so strange because in a comic opera, this tune would actually work rather well. The whole scene is one strange way to pass nine minutes.

SCENE 2: The French Court, Reims.

9, 17: Flutes start us off with a bit of that demonic chorus from the prologue which was so recent as to seem like a strange parody (we heard it for the first time less than fifteen minutes ago). Giovanna’s aria * is fine as she things of the peace of home but it leads to the orchestral blaring out that jovial demonic chorus theme (is this really a thing). The accompaniment to the aria is very minimal, it exposes the vocal line well (which is good) but does little else. Charles arrives without the scene cleaning finishing and the accompaniment is a furious ride on horseback. The angels (altos) and demons (everyone else) return. Charles tries to declare his love but Giovanna will have none of it and declares so in the most dramatic way *. “Go away!” cries she over and over again, and frankly, Charles’ music is really not all that enticing so I can’t say I blame her.

20: The royal guard assembles to take the King to his coronation *. It is rather sub-standard, especially before the demonic chorus shows up for one last bit for foreshadowing as Charles drums out his not all that great love music. It is hard to figure out, what is Giovanna actually struggling with?

ACT 2: Rheims Cathedral (20 minutes)

0: This is obviously meant to be the climax of the show, but it is really rather sub-par with the chorus and orchestra (particularly the brass and drums) working overtime but to a rather unsatisfying effect *. The “Viva!” shouts to manic brass can only go so far dramatically, it actually comes off more happy than dramatically joyous and settles down FAR too quickly (it is all of 3 minutes!).

3: Giacomo comes on with a weirdly sympathetic aria * considering how he has already promised to hand over his daughter to the English forces. There is a hymn that follows which seems to be returning us to the Coronation.

8: The strings descend as Charles tries to praise what Giovanna has accomplished for him *. Giacomo intervenes and Charles asks who he is, Giovanna reveals that he is her father and he then rants about how she is demonically possessed. Everyone is horrified.

12: We feel like some great ensemble is about to happen, well it doesn’t until Giovanna rises into the heavens on a woodwind accompaniment * (seriously she is the only good thing about this opera). She sustains above everything else for so long and leaves everyone else in the dust (including Charles who mirrors her miserably from below). But her vocal gymnastics can only go so far.

17: The finale * is Verdi at his “oom-pah-pah” worst, even Giovanna’s coloratura soprano fireworks can’t save this thing because it is too cliche.

ACT 3: The English Camp where Giovanna is held prisoner. (24 minutes)

3: Immediately the curtain rises to English calls acknowledging the French, and boom, boom, the battle begins to Giovanna’s narration. Giacomo shows up thinking she is experiencing another delirium. Listen to the strings here *, there is something interesting going on as Giovanna narrates again. Her father realizes the error of his ways and releases her so she can fight one last time. At first the duet is set to a dance-like tune. This is Verdi’s Father-Daughter relationship music, but of its lowest possible voltage which is to say the music a normal person would write on a great day, but for Verdi, it is sub-par. It gets more springy before she runs off to battle, but not better. Giovanna tries to pull of another coloratura explosion, it doesn’t work. We then have battle music again, this time with Giacomo narrating. Charles comes on but it is later his servant Delil (the only other named character who appears in more than a single scene) who announces that Giovanna has been mortally wounded.

12: Giovanna is brought in and Charles sings what is possibly the best music so far in the opera **, a strange and winding little aria.

15: The last nine minutes of the opera consists of Giovanna’s death scene in which she is reconciled with her father, the king, and God in an Apotheosis **. The chorus has traces of the overture and the coronation sequence. Giovanna dominates (what else is new?) as she asks for her banner. Charles and Giacomo aren’t as up to it as Giovanna is though, but boy is she!

COMMENTS:

This opera is so reliant upon the soprano singing the title role that there is very little for the other singers to do. It also moves incredibly fast and this is both disconcerting and a relief at the same time. All of the good (much less great) music belongs to Giovanna’s vocal line, Carlo getting essentially a single cavatina in act three and a snippy love theme. The only other character of any dramatic importance (there are five named characters), is Giacomo, her father and he is not all that sympathetic even though I think musically Verdi was trying to make him so. The tinta of Giovanna is the weakest of almost all of Verdi’s operas, possibly I Masnadieri is worse. The best music (apart from the last 12 minutes or so where things finally begin to get better, albeit far too late to save the opera) is actually rather tuneful (such as the demonic/angelic choral fight in the prologue) but this oftentimes comes off so bizarrely as to verge on the comical. The rest, which is unfortunately too much of the opera, is rather banal recitative or seems horribly mismatched and too jovial. Most of the rest is anemic, this is most terribly apparent in the Coronation scene. The chorus is used too much (am I actually saying this of a Verdi opera?). The only interesting thing about this is how it is used to play multiple characters, sometimes at the same time. The plot is too thin and there is remarkably little padding trying to hide this. What plot there is has so many holes: Why is Giacomo so much of a jerk that he go to the English (the enemy) and offers to turn in his own daughter to them even if he thinks she is possessed? Why is Giovanna apparently haunted by a chorus of tuneful but psychologically disturbing demons? Why is her possible romantic relationship with Charles portrayed as the most vile thing imaginable? Why is Charles such a weak character and essentially reduced to the role generally assigned to the prima donna, showy theatrically if not musically and confined mostly to the romantic intrigue?  Does any of this really matter? C or C+.

 

 

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