July 21, 2015
The Times by Anna Picard
There has been no getting away from Joan of Arc lately. With the publication of Helen Castor’s history and the Orlando Consort’s Voices Appeared tour, in which five singers craft a life soundtrack to Dreyer’s 1928 silent film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, it seems as though we understand the suffering and ecstasy of the teenaged saint and soldier better than ever.
Joan’s trial and execution were extensively documented, yet Verdi’s 1845 opera, Giovanna d’Arco, proposes a different story. Here there is a romance (unconsummated) between Giovanna and Carlo, the king whose army she led. Her chief prosecutor is her father, Giacomo, who suspects that the voices Giovanna has heard in her visions are those of demons. Giovanna dies not at the stake, but in battle, or shortly afterwards, forgiven by Giacomo but still hearing voices.
‘Not Verdi’s best’ is the standard response, but between the peppery woodwind, the restless string figures, the gaudy off-stage banda, milk-white pastoral idylls, chaste hymns, the demons’ carnival waltz Tu sei bella, and arias of extraordinary austere beauty, it is more than a novelty.
Elijah Moshinsky’s production carefully balances the main themes of the text, while conductor Stuart Stratford draws a vivid performance from the Northern Chamber Orchestra. Giovanna (Kate Ladner) is on stage from the first notes of the overture: curled up like a child then animated by dreams of romance and dreams of valour, spooked and charmed by her own reflection in Russell Craig’s abstract designs.
The temperature of the tragedy is mirrored in Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting: rolling storm clouds, shrapnel and blood. Giovanna is a heroic role, calling for a large voice with athletic coloratura and reserves of great tenderness and purity. Ladner conveys Giovanna’s strength and vulnerability but has yet to navigate a smooth path between extremes. As the besotted Carlo, Ben Johnson sings elegantly and gravely; his Di novel prodigio is the musical highlight. Devid Cecconi has the measure of Giacomo’s volatile sentimentality and Buxton’s tiny chorus sings with brio.