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Joan of Arc burns bright

July 17, 2015

Notes from Middle England by Chris Ramsden

MAIN Kate Ladner (Giovanna) and Ben Johnson (Carlo) in Buxton Festival's Giovanna d'Arco. Photo (c) Jonathan Keenan

Last April, the French finally got around to creating a Joan of Arc museum in Rouen. Yes, I know, given the French affection for the Maid of Orleans, it seems a bit late to me, too.

I doubt, however, if Verdi’s opera, Giovanna d’Arco, will feature in the exhibits.

Temistocle Solera’s strange libretto has the king, Charles, fancying Joan like mad, and her father is a major character right at the centre of the action. The Hundred Years’ War is reduced to a family row (I suppose it was in a way, only it wasn’t Joan’s family.)

Joan herself dies after a battle. This will come as a surprise to anyone who has been to the Vieux-Marché in Rouen, where she was tied to a stake and burnt.

I blame Schiller, on whose play the libretto is based, though Solera always denied that (no doubt for fear of having to share the royalties.)

Buxton has form, of course, in choosing operas for which historical authenticity is a loose concept. I well remember the joy in discovering from Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux that Queen Elizabeth I had abdicated in favour of James.

So is this why Verdi’s opera – his seventh, no less – is so rarely performed? Actually, it had a reasonably 17 performances in 1845 in Milan, followed by others all over Europe. But when it was taken to Rome, the papal censor demanded a few changes – plot, theme and title for a start. The pope, of course, claimed a monopoly on religion, and it’s quite a religious opera.

The clever Buxton set is a wonky square with reflective sides, so that it is claustrophobic while making it seem there are more people on stage than there actually are. The costumes are odd; the French appear to be fifteenth century, the English from the First World War, and Joan’s father seems to have come from a different opera altogether – probably Traviata.

The music is glorious, thanks to Stuart Stratford’s snappy conducting and the incomparable Northern Chamber Orchestra. Verdi throws the book at it. Even Act 2 starts with a Gran Marcia Trionfale; there’s a lot of thrilling noise – harmonium, triangle and harp, plenty of martial brass, drums and pipes, even cannon. It all sounds very well in Matcham’s magnificent miniature opera house.

The strong and well-drilled chorus opens with a thrilling attack and one of those Verdi tunes which seem to have always existed. Right, I thought, we’re in for a good time here. Someone was trying to whistle the music in the loo at the interval, which seems a good sign.

There are indeed countless examples of fine operatic writing; a lovely father/daughter duet and an a capella trio spring to mind.

But there are also things which make it difficult for a modern audience.

The opera opens with Joan seemingly fighting a battle between religiosity and puberty, reflected in her visions by very literal and melodramatic red-lit demons and white-lit nuns. The key central scene involving King Charles, Joan and her father relies on outmoded concepts like honour, devil worship, and filial duty, reducing a dynastic battle to a domestic spat. Joan goes from hero to zero in minutes.

The singers do their very best with it, and they have to be admired for taking on such a complex task for a work which is unlikely to be resurrected elsewhere anytime soon.

Australian soprano Kate Ladner looks and acts the part, and her voice certainly cuts through the action. She even manages to make Joan’s death scene almost credible (she is brought in from the battlefield and revives enough to sing a quick aria.)

Ben Johnson as Carlo, aka the Dauphin, is a fine tenor, though the part demands that he is but a star in Joan’s firmament.

I enjoyed David Cecconi’s strong and focused flexible voice as Joan’s father, Giacomo. I see he’s already performed the role at Parma’s Teatro Regio, which may explain why he seemed so at ease.

I’m very glad to have had the chance to see and hear this, even if I’m not convinced it can be a popular hit (and the critics have never really liked its vulgar vigour.)

Suffice it to say that if you’re a history teacher, you should go to the Historial Jeanne D’Arc in Rouen (replacing the old wax museum which, appropriately, seems to have burnt down in 2012.)

For anyone else, an opportunity to see and hear such a rare beast as Verdi’s opera on the subject — and just up the road in Buxton — shouldn’t be missed.

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