Giuseppe Verdi: Giovanna d’Arco (1845)

Opera in four acts. Running Time: 2 hours.

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.

NOTE: I have changed the video to the Param 2008 production as it is the most recent production on YouTube and better sound quality:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5N7SKyAaUHs

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1 (40.5 minutes)

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

0: The seven minute overture *, actually starts off rather well with the strings brooding about below and then an orchestral explosion (a bit like Verdi’s storm music in Rigoletto). There is some good if uneventful woodwind work for a long while until the brooding strings return for one last briefer go but then this bouncy march comes in until the end which is a little reprehensible.

19: The opening chorus is bizarrely sedate, if at first loud. 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 in a very low temperature cavatina.  The choral response sounds sinister but comes off more as a failed attempt at self-relivance; the woodwinds scurry about like rodents. In the cabaletta * Charles worries about how stressful it is to be a king, a little too happily but at least there is a short tune here. The scene fades away.

SCENE 2: Before a huge oak tree in a forest.

27: Some Verdi grade-B 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 cavatina * is rather sweet but doesn’t match the proto-warrior/martyr image one would expect.

32: Charles arrives but then a chorus of demons (soprano/tenor/bass) comes on in the distance singing an incredibly jolly and weird 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 BELLE FRANCE. It is all of such a low voltage that it could not be of any but curio interest and yet a star just for how bizarre it is *. It isn’t horrible but what was Verdi on when he wrote this scene?

36: Giovanna awakens declaring she will be victorious and sees Charles. Her father thinks she is demonically possessed and much of this is a surprisingly extended moment of a cappella but it is framed by one jovial tune bursting out twice before the end of the scene *.

ACT 2 (30.5 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 *.

4: 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 cavatina * that isn’t comedic one could ever imagine.

8: The English agree with him and then he limps around to an almost happy melody during the cabaletta *. The scene just comes off as too musically 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 eleven minutes.

SCENE 2: The French Court, Reims.

14: Flutes start us off with a bit of that demonic chorus from the prologue which was so recent as to seem like parody (we heard it for the first time less than twenty minutes ago). Giovanna thinks of the peace of home but it leads to her experiencing mental torment as the orchestral blaring out that jovial demonic chorus theme (is this really a thing). The accompaniment to her aria * is very minimal, it exposes the vocal line well (which is good) but does little else.

21: Charles arrives (or rather intrudes) and the accompaniment is a furious ride on horseback if bordering on ornery. The angels (altos) and demons (everyone else) return. Charles tries to declare his love (and perhaps a bit more) 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 here is really not all that enticing so I can’t say I blame her. One can infer from this scene that like Solitaire, Giovanna’s power will be forfeit should she lose her virginity (by whatever means). Charles, even as her husband, would destroy her.

28: The royal guard assembles to take the King to his coronation very briefly. Alone again, Charles unleashes a love theme which at first comes off rather poorly but it does get better. The demonic chorus shows up for one last bit of somewhat annoying foreshadowing (are they schizophrenic voices?) as Charles drums out his love music again, this time providing us with two rather tender minutes. If not for the chorus this would be more than *.

ACT 3: Rheims Cathedral (23.5 minutes)

0: This is obviously meant to be the climax of the show, but it is really sub-par with the chorus and orchestra (particularly the brass and timpani) 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 like ballet music than dramatically joyous and settles down FAR too quickly (it is all of 4 minutes!).

6: 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.

12: 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 rather well * about how she is demonically possessed. Everyone is horrified.

15: We feel like some great ensemble is about to happen, and it does finally when Giovanna rises into the heavens on a woodwind accompaniment **. 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 and now everyone except Charles is against her, and since she refuses to defend herself there is nothing even he can do.

21: The stretta finale * is Verdi at his “oom-pah-pah” worst, even Giovanna’s coloratura soprano fireworks can’t save this thing because it comes off so confused.

ACT 4: The English Camp where Giovanna is held prisoner. (25 minutes)

3: Immediately the curtain rises to English calls acknowledging the French, and boom, boom, the battle begins to Giovanna’s narration to a tune half-way to The Lone Ranger. 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.

8: It gets more springy before she runs off to battle, but not better *. Giovanna tries to pull off 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. Giacomo asks the King to punish him but Charles forgives him.

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

16: 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:

My original impression of this opera was that it was horrid, and although it has improved slightly, this is still one of Verdi’s driest operas. The score is so reliant upon the soprano singing the title role that there is very little for the other singers to do. All of the good (much less great because there isn’t any) music belongs to Giovanna’s vocal line, Carlo getting essentially a single good cavatina in act four and a snippy love theme in act two along with a passible cavatina and a duet with Giovanna in act one. The only other character of any importance (there are five named characters two of which serve almost no purpose), is Giacomo, her father and he is not all that sympathetic even though I think musically Verdi was trying to make him so, although he just comes off passing, just. I masnadieri is certainly worse than this, but Giovanna leaves much to be desired, even if it can be seen as an experiment in Verdi’s theatrical development of the father-daughter relationship, which appears to have been his motivation in choosing this subject. 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 act 1 and the confrontation in the Cathedral in act 3) but this oftentimes comes off so bizarrely as to verge on the comical. The rest, too much of the opera, is rather banal or seems mismatched (such as much of Giacomo’s music) although as I said Verdi does seem to have at least tried to give his three main characters something to do here. The chorus on the other hand is anemic and used far too much, this is most apparent during the coronation scene which is the worst part of the opera for this to be happening. The only interesting thing the chorus does get to do is play multiple character parts, 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 goes 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 who dump her after act 2? Why is her possible romantic relationship with Charles portrayed as the most vile thing imaginable? Why is Charles such a passive character and essentially reduced to the role generally assigned to the prima donna, showy theatrically if not musically and confined mostly to the romantic/political intrigue?  Does any of this really matter? C or C+.

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