Shaw in his preface to Saint Joan
rude about Schiller’s “witch’s cauldron of romance”
which constituted his play The Maid of Orleans.
Joan”, he observed tartly, “has not a single point of contact
with the real Joan, or indeed with any mortal woman that ever walked
the earth. There is really nothing to be said of his play but that it
is not about Joan at all, and can hardly be said to pretend to be; for
he makes her die on the battlefield, finding her burning unbearable.”
One can only imagine what he would have said about Verdi’s treatment
of the subject - for although his librettist Temistocle Solera denied
any connection with the Schiller play, his boiling-down of the subject
has too many points of resemblance with it to be a mere coincidence.
As it happens he would not even have been aware of the existence of
the score, which was believed to have been lost (apart from the Overture)
before it was revived for Renata Tebaldi in 1951. It didn’t reach
the stage in London until a student production in 1966.
Solera’s adaptation reduces the story of Joan of Arc to a feeble
and rather brief operatic plot, with only a very tangential reference
to historical accuracy; but it does contain two elements which would
strongly have appealed to the young Verdi. In the first place it continues
the theme which runs so vibrantly through his early operas from his
‘galley years’, that of a nation struggling for freedom
against an alien oppressor. Secondly it contains yet another of his
portraits of a father and daughter at odds with each other and finally
finding reconciliation. At the point in the coronation scene where father
and daughter confront each other, Verdi’s music suddenly catches
fire in a superb concertato
and thereafter maintains a high level
to the end. The opera was highly popular in the nineteenth century,
but was frequently performed with a new plot and amended text under
the title of Orietta di Lesbo
, which would at least avoid any
suggestion that the subject matter of the work was the career of Joan
Be that as it may, Verdi hardly achieves in this score the mastery of
his themes that was to characterise his later work. Much of the earlier
music is frankly pretty vulgar, and the scene in which Joan is tempted
by devils and encouraged by angels is laughably meretricious; the booklet
quotes a particularly vituperative criticism of this passage by Hanslick.
All of that said, the musical performance on this DVD is very good,
and Bruno Bartoletti does what he can to tone down the insistent rum-ti-tum
of the orchestra. In the opening scene Evan Bowers is a rather epicene
Charles VII, but he sings with honeyed tone and produces a good effect.
Svetla Vassileva as Joan has an attractively tomboyish look, and her
quiet singing is raptly beautiful; but when she puts pressure on the
voice, a juddering enters the tone which at times threatens to spill
over into a positively Slavonic wobble. Renato Bruson has been around
for many years, but his voice remains in good shape despite some occasional
suggestions of wear. He produces a real character out of Joan’s
father’s annoyingly unmotivated changes of mood and purpose. Both
he and Vassileva make the most of their confrontation in the coronation
scene, where their singing suddenly achieves a real Verdian momentum.
The two other parts are hardly more than ciphers, but Maurizio lo Piccolo
and Luigi Petroni acquit themselves well. The chorus, who have a great
deal to do, are lustily full-throated and enthusiastic.
The production is pretty basic, but it gets all the characters in the
right places at the right times and leaves them to sing, which is after
all what early Verdi is all about. The costumes are authentically fifteenth
century, and the scenery is properly atmospheric.
In his review of the original production in Opera
Loomis referred to Gabriele Lavia’s intention to draw parallels
with the Italian Risorgimento
, but these allusions are hardly
noticeable in the video production as seen here. One listens in vain
for audible evidence of the use of the harmonium in the chorus of demons,
or for the ‘fisarmonica’ in the chorus of angels.
In a set which constitutes part of a historically informed series recording
the complete operas of Verdi, it is slightly alarming to find the booklet
note by Anselm Gerhard making reference at some length to an incident
at the première of the opera at La Scala on “15 February
1841”. In fact the première took place some five years
later; and the misquoted date is not simply a misprint, since it recurs
in all four languages in the booklet. One other historical inaccuracy
should also be noted. The DVD titles refer to the various scenes as
Act One, Act Two, Act Three
and Act Four
; but in fact
is described by Verdi as an opera in “a
Prologue and Three
We have hardly been blessed with a superfluity of recordings of Giovanna
The only studio set is that by James Levine made some
forty years ago - his first complete opera recording - but still available.
There has been one previous DVD recording, a 1989 production by Werner
Herzog (also with Bruson as Joan’s father) which is also still
listed. I have not seen this performance since it first appeared on
television over twenty years ago, but I do not recall the production
as being anything special or as convincing as this. This DVD therefore
has the field pretty much to itself, and it is a fully worthy representation
of a frustratingly uneven work.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
see also review of blu-ray version by Robert