Giovanna d’Arco, Buxton Festival, review: ‘heartfelt’

Telegraph by Rupert Christiansen

Giovanna d'Arco, Buxton Festival, review: 'heartfelt'

****

Though ranked among the dregs of Verdi’s oeuvre this is still a lot more fun than most operas, says Rupert Christiansen

Although commonly ranked alongside Il Corsaro and Alzira among the dregs of Verdi’s oeuvre, Giovanna d’Arco is still a lot more fun than most operas. Charged with vitality, unashamed of its crudity, sincere in its emotion and blessedly succinct, it draws on Schiller’s play The Maid of Orleans to relate a throroughly inauthentic version of historical events in the course of which Joan enters a chaste love affair with Charles the Dauphin before dying transfigured after a triumphant battle.

Verdi doesn’t dig deep here, but two of his most obsessive themes resonate through the plot – the nationalistic impulse to shake off the yoke of tyranny and the troubled relationship of parent and child, dramatised here in Joan’s struggle to persuade her pious father that she hasn’t sold her soul to the devil. There may be little refinement on offer, but the passions are heartfelt.

The score remains notable for its ferocity rather than its lyricism, and there’s no denying that its fairground jauntiness sometimes creates an almost comic effect. But it also has a blazing urgency that sweeps the audience along in its wake, and come the final act’s combination of blazing triumph and deathbed reconciliation, the farrago attains a level of tragic dignity that is really quite moving.

Crisply directed by veteran Elijah Moshinsky and economically designed by Russell Craig, Buxton Festival’s low budget no-fuss production is exemplary. The staging doesn’t present the medieval period through a heavy-handed literal realism or insist on contentious modern parallels: instead it lets the drama communicate on its own terms, respecting the mood of the music and the spirit of its epoch, without a Balkan rape or a Fascist storm-trooper in sight. More puppyish directors should note the wisdom of this approach.

Kate Ladner makes a fearless Joan, bright and strong of tone and cavalier of pitch and enunciation, in contrast to Ben Johnson’s cautious King Charles, sensitively phrased if anxiously inhibited above the stave. But the evening’s outstanding performance comes from Devid Cecconi as Joan’s father – his baritone may have been somewhat woolly in texture, but it radiates bags of genuine Italian swagger and bravado.

Praise is also due to a lusty chorus largely drawn from the conservatoires, as well as to the sterling Stuart Stratford, who conducted the Northern Chamber Orchestra with unaffected muscular vigour. This is Buxton at its best.