Polishing another forgotten gem

joan of arc

France's uncrowned Charles VII, sung by Ben Johnson, hails Kate Ladner as Joan of Arc. Pictures: Jonathan Keenan

Giovanna d’Arco

Buxton Opera House

Buxton Festival


THERE were at least two 19th century operas on the heroic and tragic subject of Joan of Arc: Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans appears from time to time; the other is Giovanna d’Arco, one of Verdi’s early operas on which he cut his teeth (his seventh, first staged at La Scala, Milan in February 1845) several years before the great sequence of Rigoletto, Traviata and Trovatore (others would claim that Luisa Miller is a deserving early mature work still sorely neglected, and they are surely right).

In fact many of these early works have merits of one kind or another. From Joan of Arc, though the drama is not as effectively built as it might be, certainly visually. Above all, there is no graphic burning, such as would furnish a director and designer with an absolute visual and dramatic field day, on or offstage.

In fact the later stages, though stemming to whatever degree from Friedrich Schiller’s play The Maid of Orleans (from which Tchaikovsky takes his title: Orleans is the city Joan dazzlingly saves in just nine days, relieving it from the besieging English at the outset of her soldiering career), are somewhat weak, because the story is severely attenuated in a way Verdi would not have contemplated later.

Yet the closing stages are superbly built up (here by the immensely proficient Northern Chamber Orchestra conducted by Stuart Stratford) - just as Act I achieves and maintains a musical depth quite comparable with Verdi’s full-blooded later works).

Stuart Stratford is a superb asset to those sharp enough to engage him. Some Behind the Arras readers will know all too well what he has achieved directing the CBSO, and, before that, proficient scratchjoan and father ensembles, in sundry out of the way Birmingham venues with Graham Vick’s deliciously wacky and unpredictable Birmingham Opera Company.

Further afield, Stratford has proved a longstanding asset to Opera Holland Park, for whom he has conducted a dozen productions, including two of Verdi: Rigoletto and La Forza del Destino.

Kate Ladner's Giovanna was betrayed by her faher Giacomo, sung by Devid Cecconi

One of the others he oversaw was Holland Park’s Lucia di Lammermoor, the Donizetti masterpiece which Artistic Director Stephen Barlow conducted at Buxton this summer. Having conducted John Adams (Doctor Atomic) for Finnish National Opera, Stratford is returning this year for The Rake’s Progress. It is an impressive roster for this always striking, enabling and still relatively young conductor.

The somewhat flawed story as unveiled in Temistocle Solera’s libretto for Giovanna d’Arco includes an unlikely love match between Joan and Charles VII, who has succeeded his father, the dotty old Charles VI (memorably evoked in Laurence Olivier’s film Henry V).

All this is fanciful, but owes something to Schiller’s slightly corny idea of how a drama is built. Joan is not burnt, but miraculously escapes English captivity to lead the French to further victory; then, near death, she miraculously recovers - to be pardoned by her repentant father and lamented by all concerned before touchingly expiring. Perhaps the most serious omission in this Joan of Arc is the trial for witchcraft instigated by the English, which plays such a crucial and dramatic role in George Bernard Shaw’s play St. Joan. The brutal cynicism of her enemies – on both sides – is driven home both by the harshness of the inquisitor and by the cruelty of the sentence. 

Yet if some of the plot is pure fantasy, the truncated opera somehow still appeals, mainly because Verdi is on the verge of arriving – indeed has already arrived – as a composer: the music is strong and forceful – electrifying in places; and certain elements of the slimmed-down drama patently anticipate his later operas, most obviously the paternal disapproval and then repentance of Rigoletto and La Traviata.

One of the glories of Buxton – apart from the blossoming of its Literature festival events, especially under the chairmanship of Roy Hattersley - has been its unique and awesome record in presenting to the public a wide range of lesser known or neglected operas.

This summer as well as Giovanna d’Arco (Verdi’s seventh opera), it has brought in three concert performances of Louise, the once incredibly popular opera by the long-lived Gustave Charpentier (1860-1956; not the famous and prolific 18th century master Marc-Antoine Charpentier), which was first seen at Paris’s Opéra-Comique on 2 February 1900, just two weeks after Puccini’s Tosca premiered at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome.

But Buxton is in the habit of turning unknowns into successes. It rangescoronation across the eras. Thus in one season (1985) it presented a work by Niccolo Piccinni, La buona figliuola; Il filosofo di campagna by Baldassare Galuppi; and Don Quixote by their older contemporary Francesco Conti.

The Coronation of the Dauphin (Ben Johnson) as Charles VII at Rheims

All three composers are virtual unknowns in the UK. From Mozart’s early output came no les than six offerings: Il re pastore, The Dream of Scipio, La finta semplice, Apollo and Hyacinthus, Mitridate and Ascanio in Alba, all predating his 20th birthday.

Buxton put its toe in the water with Vivaldi before Garsington Opera (Griselda), keeping abreast in 2012 and 2013 with L’Olympiade then Ottone in Villa); embraced Cavalli (Jason), and mounted or imported three rare Cimarosa; plus Telemann, Haydn and Schubert (Fierrabras). From the 19th century, where else would you find Gounod’s The Dove, Saint-Saëns’ sparkling La princesse jaune, Messager’s Véronique and Fortunio, Peter Cornelius’ The Barber of Baghdad or Sibelius’ The Maiden in the Tower (1896)?

One miraculous opera performed in Buxton’s fourth season (1982) was Kodály’s Háry János – a kind of poignant nationalistic collage, a hilarious and touching hit never seen in this country but crying out for an airing: what imagination on Buxton’s part.

And that is before one looks at its extensive repertoire from the later 20th century, early examples of which were Maxwell Davies’ The Two Fiddlers, Nigel Osborne’s The Electrification of the Soviet Union, and later Philippe Boesmans’ Julie (based on Strindberg), Judith Weir’s The Black Spider, the  brilliantly inventive Salvatore Sciarrino (The Killing Flower), Will Todd’s thumpingly good The Blackened Man and two Arthurian Round Table operas, Richard Blackford’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Lynn Plowman’s hilariously colourful spoof Gwyneth and the Green Knight.

A mere glance at this list, almost all of which are rarities or utterly neglected, shows how bold and imaginative the planners have been; Buxton’s repertoire is probably the most daring in the UK - and reveals the festival’s confidence in trusting to its own instincts in the knowledge that its audience trusts it and will fill the seats, as they invariably do.

Buxton’s artistic director, Stephen Barlow, has said ‘Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco (Joan of Arc, dating from 1845) startles with its electric voltage and sympathy for the heroine, laying the foundations for his lifelong devotion to womanly heroines of all descriptions’: Luisa, Violetta, Gilda, Desdemona and more.

Indeed we soon felt the electricity, as great things were promised by a wonderfully gripping orchestral opening, with timpani and shivering strings yielding to piccolo-topped ensemble, pizzicato flute and then woodwind, one after the other, as the young peasant girl Joan is first seen, assuming a medium blue cowl as if in imitation of the Virgin to whom she is praying, cleverly reflected on the side wall and in shadow on the rear set by the immensely effective Lighting Designer, Malcolm Rippeth.

The three woodwind unite and an ensuing classic Verdi scherzo gained from a steady brass underlay, supplied by the ever-reliable Northern Chamber Orchestra.

France’s Charles VII, newly ascended and not yet crowned, cujoan and kingts a sorry figure before Joan bolsters his faith and cheers his spirits. He was sung by tenor Ben Johnson, not the world’s most creative actor – he could have used a little more help to unstiffen the young dauphin, now King, from the direction team, but whose lyric beauty and impressively sustained long lines did ample justice to Verdi’s quite taxing writing. Johnson’s is a lovely voice, his sequence of quite long arias tenderly delivered from start to finish.

The King (Ben Johnson, standing) pleads with Joan (Kate Ladner) to reassume the lead

In a pair of soliloquies he laments the burden of ruling, and even volunteers to forswear the French crown and yield it to the English. That doesn’t bode well. But his meeting in the forest with Joan, characterised by a series of highly lyrical and beautiful arias for both, interwoven with contributions from the splendidly on form, well balanced (so as not to overbear) and sympathetic Buxton chorus, strikingly well trained (as also in Lucia di Lammermoor) by Matthew Morley, that clearly anticipate and at best are a fine match for Verdi’s later choral writing of the 1850s, beefs up his courage and gives him unexpected hope. The drama, as in the Schiller from which (despite denials) the overall emphases and structure are patently taken, or poached, focuses on 1429 and 1430, the years when Joan had her biggest impact on the Franco-British wars, and gains real intensity from an unlikely character – Joan’s father.  Seeing the first encounter in the forest between his daughter and the King, Giacomo, or Jacques d’Arc (1380-1440), a well-to-do farmer and minor local official, mistakenly believes Joan has turned from God for earthly desires. In fact he is not totally wrong, for soon afterwards Joan and Charles do declare their love. But as Jacques sees it, Joan is embracing the devil (who is represented by a slightly corny, fiesta like jeering chorus in bolds scarlet whose ugly masks repeatedly mock her).

Her mortified father makes the terrible decision to betray Joan to the France’s enemy, the English, a rough and motley crew rather well portrayed by chorus members led by the seasoned Graeme Danby, a stalwart of ENO, Scottish Opera, etc., as Talbot. The father, a wonderful Italian bass or bass-baritone, Devid Cecconi, who has sung leading baritone roles all across Italy, proved a glorious find for Buxton: in some ways Cecconi’s performance made the evening and redoubled the opera’s dramatic impact. His anger, shame (‘Original sin leads us along a troubled path’), pain and ultimate repentance were all finely captured; as were the glowering gray skies that neatly implied France’s near-demise. This was singing worth travelling to hear.

Joan’s endeavours to embrace and follow God’s will are prompted by a quartet of ‘angels’, here dressed as nuns, who visit her in her home village of Domrémy (today in the Vosges département of north-ejoan's huseast France: nowadays Domrémy-la-pucelle, its appendage meaning ‘the maid’) and fire her to action, but also warn her of the dangers that await. Stirred by them she proclaims ‘I am the warrior maiden who will lead you to victory’ – a classic opportunity for some rum-ti-tum Verdi - to which the King (Carlo to her Giovanna) responds ‘God’s flame is in your eyes.’

The house in Domrémy-la-Pucelle where Joan of Arc was born and grew up

Australian soprano Kate Ladner offered a plucky lass, especially well directed, looking the part in her armour so you could imagine her taking the field. Vocally she had the necessary punch, just occasionally below the note but more often dazzlingly on it: but the ensembles had particular weight, and she flourished in them – especially a superb STB trio for the three main figures, classic Verdi at his best, supported by a gutsy English chorus – this chorus could act and produced some memorable scenes and vignettes - and more subdued French choir.

She knows her Verdi – she has sung Desdemona, Aida and Violetta, and – tellingly – the high soprano role in Falstaff (Nanetta). A regular choice for Holland Park, as well as Massenet’s Manon, she can certainly hit the high notes – and with character - when she’s required. On the whole well directed by Elijah Moshinsky, perhaps in a traditional kind of way, she flourished.  

Captured by the British, Joan has given up hope: (‘Pity me, I am no longer the messenger of the Virgin Mary’). But the libretto has more up its sleeve. Urged to recover from her near-death-swoon, and forswearing her love for the King to purify herself, she pluckily pulls herself together and takes to the field one last time; but in victory dies a soldier’s death. No fiery stakes to excite a clever designer and lights designer: it all feels a bit of a swizz.

Yet somehow it works. The final entry of Joan on a bier, the weeping crowned King in attendance, makes way for her abjuring her role where groaning violas lend a special feeling of pathos. Her father no longer sees himself as ‘the thunderbolt of God’s anger’ (instead: ‘My daughter was my only hope’). With cello support she sings ‘May heaven’s will be done’.

The big build-up towards the end – certainly shades here of the mature Verdi – set the seal on Stuart Stratford’s predictably adept conducting of this, as Stephen Barlow rightly predicted, endlessly interesting score. Well worth its revival, Giovanna d’Arco was surely one of Buxton’s most admirable successes. To 24-07-15

Roderic Dunnett



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