This season, Odyssey Opera has programmed five musical treatments of the life of Joan of Arc and the One Hundred Years’ War, culminating in Giuseppe Verdi’s virginal Giovanna d’Arco (1847). Verdi’s seventh opera sets an Italian libretto by Temistocle Solera, with scenes loosely based on Friedrich Schiller’s Die Jungfrau von Orleans (1801). Giovanna d’Arco (Joan of Arc) is a bold and vivid portrayal of the iconic Joan of Arc, a woman who sacrifices everything in fighting for her beliefs and her country. In Verdi’s version of the saint’s saga he presents us with a very different portrait of the martyred Joan than has been presented this season. Joan’s father, Giacomo, gives his valiant warrior-daughter up to the invading English army, believing she has given her soul to the devil. Having convinced him of her chaste and godly devotion (in the first of Verdi’s great father-daughter duets), Joan dies on the battlefield and ascends to heaven to anthems of salvation and victory. In addition to Verdi’s quintessential virtuosic writing for the lead principals, this passionate story serves as a vehicle for some of his most brilliant orchestral and choral music.
Giovanna d’Arco premiered at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala on February 15, 1845 to great public success despite sub-par production standards (noted by both Verdi and the critics). It was the third of Verdi’s four large-scale choral operas with libretti by Solera. La Scala director Bartolomeo Merelli (1794-1879) had helped Verdi’s jump start his career (producing Oberto in 1839 on generous terms), but didn’t provide enough funds to hire a full orchestra for Giovanni d’Arco’s premiere. Most of the scenery and costumes were recycled from other operas, and Merelli even tried to
negotiate secretly with Verdi’s publisher Ricordi to acquire the rights to the score. When the composer found out, he vowed never again to set foot in La Scala, and actually did stay away for thirty-six years (until the revised version of his Simon Boccanegra was presented there in 1881). The original La Scala production ran for seventeen performances, and the opera was repeated (with a bigger orchestra and better scenery) in Milan in 1851, 1858, and 1865. Other northern Italian cities presented it in revised versions during the 1845-1848 seasons, including Florence, Lucca, Mantua, Turin, and Venice.
Milan’s original Joan (Giovanna) and King Charles (Carlo VII) were written for a specific husband-and-wife team: coloratura prima donna soprano Erminia Frezzolini and tenor Antonio Poggi. Baritone Filippo Colini co-starred as Giovanna’s father Giacomo. Frezzolini (1818-1884) had worked with both librettist and composer before, and she had become one of the leading divas at La Scala in this period. She was a very busy performer, often appearing with as many as four different Italian companies per year.
Frezzolini made her La Scala debut in 1839 after singing the title roles for Anna Bolena, Beatrice di Tenda, and Lucia di Lammermoor in Bologna. She was acclaimed for her Lucrezia Borgia in Milan the next year, sang a season in Vienna, and then returned to Turin, marrying Antonio Poggi in 1841. With her husband, she performed in London and Milan, after which returned to La Scala to create the role of Giselda in Verdi’s I lombardi (1843), becoming a house favorite. In her forties, Frezzolini participated in a North American tour: she starred with traveling Italian opera companies in Havana and New York, and she was the first New York Gilda. Boston Symphony writer Philip Hale remarked in 1908 on her legendary “large, gentle black eyes,” “sculptural” body, and “heavenly instrument.”
When Giovanna d’Arco transferred to Rome three months after its Milan premiere, papal censors demanded changes. In this period, Verdi was required to submit forty-one copies of any opera under Roman consideration for examination (checking for issues of religion, morals, good manners, respect for the law, respect for persons, and “philological concerns”). They removed all direct religious references from Giovanna’s plot (!), changed the scenery to avoid the colors of the Italian flag, and shifted the setting to the Greek isle of Lesbos to avoid presenting a woman as a liberator of a major European power: Joan of Arc was transformed into Orietta, a Genoese heroine leading the Lesbians in battle against the Turks. This revised version (Orietta di Lesbo) also enjoyed a run in Palermo in 1848, and several other revised versions of the original score were created for different Italian localities.
Odyssey Opera is using Alberto Rizzuti’s new critical edition of Giovanna d’Arco, the first publication in full score. This version is based on the composer’s autograph score preserved in the archives of Verdi’s publisher, Casa Ricordi. It restores all of the opera’s original text, which had been heavily censored, and accurately reflects Verdi’s colorful and elaborate musical setting.
At the heart of this large-scale opera, with its prominent choruses, is the difficult and beautiful part of Joan — a dynamic warrior played by an ethereal soprano. Solera’s libretto deals with the deeper levels of the well-known story: Giovanna is worthy of any Verdi heroine, with a personality full of depth and conviction. This Joan of Arc is so inspired by her mission that even her father thinks she is possessed by supernatural forces. The five leading characters are King Charles of France (tenor), Giacomo (a shepherd, baritone), his daughter Giovanna (soprano), Delil (a French officer, tenor), and Talbot (leader of the English army, bass).
The action begins in early 1429, as the French king describes a visitation of the Virgin Mary (“Sotto una quercia parvemi” / Beneath an oak she appeared to me) and soliloquizes about the frustrations of being a ruler (“Pondo è letal, matirio” / A lethal burden, a torment). Nearby, the shepherd Giacomo hopes for his daughter Giovanna’s safety, while she prays to be chosen to lead the French into battle (in the cavatina “Sempre all’alba ed alla sera” / Always at dawn and in the evening). King Carlo sees Giovanna in the forest, is inspired, and she implores him to join her in the coming battle. The King thrills at her courage as he listens to her visions of angels and demons (“Tu sei bella” / nicknamed the Demon’s Waltz). Verdi writes hellfire into his orchestration, whips of sound rising from the flames that may eventually threaten Giovanna’s body (but not her soul).
Meanwhile, the English army is camped outside of the ancient French city of Reims. Commander Talbot reassures his soldiers that their imminent surrender is not the devil’s work. Giacomo approaches him (“Franco son io” / I am French), and offers up his daughter, suggesting that she may be controlled by the devil (“So che per via dei triboli” / I know that original sin). Back at the French court, Carlo prepares for his coronation and Giovanna longs for the simpler life in Domrémy (“O fatidica foresta”/ O prophetic forest). The king confesses his love for her, but she withdraws due to mystical warnings against earthly love.
Act Three takes place in front of Reims cathedral, where French soldiers celebrate their victory over the English. Overwhelmed by anxiety, Giacomo accuses his daughter of making a pact with the devil (“Speme al vecchio” / An old man’s hope) and denounces her to the or the people of Reims. (“Comparire il ciel m’ha stretto”/ Heaven has forced me to appear). Verdi whips up the chorus (“Fuggi, o donna maledetta” / Flee, o cursed woman) and Carlo pleads with Giovanna to defend herself.
The final act unfolds through a series of mystical dialogues between Giovanna and her father. Since English army is able to capture her, she awaits her death at the stake, pleading her holy calling. Giacomo finally becomes convinced of her purity and helps her to escape. She rushes back to the battlefield as her father pleads with King Carlo for forgiveness. Their joy in victory is tempered by news of Giovanna’s death in combat (“Quale al più fido amico” / Which of my truest friends), and her body is carried in. When she suddenly revives, Giacomo accepts her sacrifice and the King professes his love, but she ascends to heaven to anthems of salvation and victory.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) collaborated on the libretto and wrote most of the music for Giovanna d’Arco during autumn 1844 and winter 1845. A totally committed, utterly magnificent score, its orchestration demands fervor and rhythmic nuance. The choruses are similar in style to Solera and Verdi’s Nabucco, including numbers for the Dauphin’s courtiers, for the peasants of Joan’s hometown, for angelic and demonic voices that only Joan (and the audience) hears, for English soldiers, and for French crowds (both celebrating and mourning). Several of their tunes immediately found their way into street music: “Tu sei bella” was a popular barrel organ waltz tune by the late 1840s.
The vocal writing contrasts lyricism for Giovanna’s compassionate father Giacomo with ardent arias for the subtle, stylish French king, Carlo VII. Critics praised Giovanna’s central role as one of “rare distinction” and singled out her prayer in the Prologue. Unusually, neither Giovanni’s cavatina nor Giovanna’s romanza include a brilliant close for the soloist.
Verdi was born near Bussetto in French-occupied Piedmont (now the northwest corner of modern Italy). During the first half of his life, “Italy” was simply a cluster of geographically contiguous kingdoms and principalities speaking dialects of what would become a common language. Verdi’s operas provided a soundtrack for the politically tempestuous half-century that preceded his death, with many of his arias and choruses becoming quasi-anthems for national unification. During the 1840s, Verdi threw himself wholeheartedly into the spirit of the Risorgimento: he became a republican who pragmatically supported unification under a king. He was anti-clerical, anti-war, an ardent patriot, and a liberal, so it is natural that Nabucco, Ernani, Attila, and Giovanna d’Arco were (at least in part) vehicles for his political beliefs. His instinct for communicating a character’s humanity through musical pathos, his preference for moral and emotional victories (rather than onstage battle scenes), and his thrilling, dramatic orchestration elevated his status from that of mere composer to national hero.
Librettist Temistocle Solera (1817-1878) began his literary career as a poet and developed into a composer and opera librettist. He had become Verdi’s favorite librettist by the mid-1840s: they collaborated on the overtly political texts for Oberto (1839, rev. 1841), Nabucco (1841, rev. 1842) and I lombardi (1843). Although Giovanna d’Arco’s plot is based in part on Schiller’s published play, Solera’s and Verdi’s approach to Giovanna is not religious or even particularly spiritual, omitting both a clerical show trial and a public execution. Giovanna hears the sounds of battle, and eventually dedicates herself to the Virgin Mary, but is motivated mainly by emotional truths (which are closer to Verdi’s personal beliefs).
George Martin’s Verdi in America (Eastman Studies in Music, vol. 86) details the American performance history of Giovanni d’Arca (through 2010) from the inaugural concert of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (led by Verdi’s friend Muzio, 1861), to band arrangements by Patrick Gilmore (1875-77) and for the U.S. Marine Band heard on the south Lawn of the White House. More recent concert versions have been given in Carnegie Hall (1976/1996) and Avery Fisher Hall (1985), outdoor staged performances were produced after dark in Central Park (1983 and 1995) and there is even a surprising English-language version from Baton Rouge (1983). David Kimbell’s Verdi in the Age of Romanticism (Cambridge, 1981) bends a documentary history of the early operas with engaging discussions of censorship, audience behavior, the business concerns of nineteenth-century opera companies, and Verdi’s Italy.
BY LARUA STANFIELD PRICHARD