Tuesday, 8 December 2015

No plaster saint : Verdi Giovanna d'Arco La Scala Netrebko Chailly

Verdi Giovanna d'Arco at Teatro alla Scala, Milan, starting the new season. Primas at La Scala are a state occasion, attended by the President of Italy and other dignitaries. This year was even more special because, after a long run of Barenboim and German opera, the focus was on Giuseppe Verdi and on Riccardo Chailly, La Scala's "favourite son", who started his career there more than 40 years ago, mentored by Claudio Abbado.  Chailly has conducted Giovanna d'Arco many times before, but this performance  outstripped expectations : totally committed, utterly magnificent

Giovanna d'Arco is sometimes described as flawed but this performance shows its true worth. The production, directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, deals with the deeper levels in the story. Anna Netrebko is fast making the role her own.  Giovanna isn't a glamour figure, but Netrebko makes the part glow, as if, like the saint, she's transfigured from within. This Joan of Arc is  vividly portrayed, so inspired by her mission that even her father thinks she's possessed by supernatural forces.  No plaster saint, but a personality with depth and conviction, as worthy as any Verdi heroine.

The prologue plays over a stage lit so all we can see is black and white. This forest is a forest of ideas, where nothing is really black and white. Joan of Arc is revered as a saint but was burned at the stake for heresy.. Nowadays, hearing voices would get Giovanna  medicated into stupor.  Invisible voices rouse her. The dark room fills with colour.  From this materializes Carlos VII, (Francesco Meli), a vision of gleaming gold.  The idea of a king appealing to a simple girl thus makes psychological sense. The crowd, however, don't understand. Verdi writes hellfire into the orchestration, whips of sound rising like the flames which will eventually destroy Giovanna's body but not her soul.  Unlike the chorus, Giovanna is paying attention. Carlo's long aria inspires her to rip her nightgown into a makeshift tunic and cut off her hair. Even as baby-faced gamine, Netrebko looks right. And then she sings "Oh ben s'addice questo, Torbido cielo" and we hear Netrebko transform into the saviour of her nation. The set lights up like a medieval church and Netrebko dons the golden armour Carlo was not worthy to wear.

In Act II, Verdi focuses on Giacomo, and on a father's anxieties, even at this moment of triumph. We see the populace, and soldiers in armour, and glimpses of Rheims cathedral, yet we also see Giovanna's bed. For Giacomo, the real drama revolves around his daughter's soul. Patriot as he is, he's a parent above all. The crowds mill round, but for Giacomo (Devid Cecconi) the bed is a symbol.  The bed is also is a consideration which matters in an opera which makes so much of the idea that the king wants to marry Giovanna. Lit with white light, the bed reminds us that Giovanna's soul is pure and will remain forever virginal. Modern minds might detect psycho-sexual complexities in  Giovanna's actions. Perhaps Verdi intuited as much, for he wrote the demon chorus "Fuggi, o donna maledetta", here illustrated by blood-red  monsters with with phallic horns.

Captured, Giovanna, relives her past victories in her imagination. The crowd dress her in gold plated armour, for she is, indeed, protected by the justice of her mission.  Now we see the towers of the Cathedral rise up, and Carlo VII astride a golden horse. But Giovanna is facing death. Soon, though, she divests herself of the worldly glory the armour represents. We see Netrebko again in a simple white shift.

But  Giovanna d'Arco is not  religious or even particularly spiritual.  The plot diverges greatly from what we know of the historical record.  Verdi's librettist was Temistocle Solera, who gave the composer Nabucco and I Lombardi, with their coded references to political liberation.   Giovanna hears the sounds of battle, and only towards the very end dedicates herself to the Virgin Mary (who is, tellingly, a plaster saint in this production). Thus we don't see flames, or a show trial. This isn't the director's fault. Verdi himself  created the final act so it unfolds through a series of dialogues between Giovanna and Giacomo, which could not possibly happen in real time.  Even at this point Giacomo seems more bothered by his daughter's virginity than her imminent death. Vocally, Netrebko and Cecconi bounce off each other so well that literal reality isn't relevant., Instead we have emotional truth, which is far more powerful and closer to Verdi's fundamental ideas. Giacomo comes at last to understand Giovanna's sacrifice, and Carlo VII to respect her for what she's done for France  Then, at last, can Giovanna be released from mortal concerns, and rise up to the skies, vivid blue like the cloak of the Virgin, only brighter, stronger  and more gem-like. 

Photos : Brescio-Amisano, Teatro alla Scala

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