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2010: Giovanna d’Arco


Program notes by George W. Martin


How should we judge this opera, about which critics disagree so sharply? “An opera of brilliant patches,” says one; “musically crude,” says another; and a third, “every number filled with life, with feeling.” Yet, until this production in Sarasota, in the United States, starting in 1976, we have had only five stagings of it. So, who can be sure?


Composed for La Scala in 1845, for twenty-five years it had a steady success in Italy with productions elsewhere in Europe. Meanwhile in the United States the soprano’s arias were occasionally sung in concert and the overture played. But after 1870 its only music heard, thanks to our brass bands, was the overture. Sousa, for example, in the years 1894-1927 performed it in eleven seasons. But then, on this the critics agree: the overture is one of Verdi’s best. 


One hurdle for the opera, one that became troublesome only in the twentieth century, is that Giovanna, unlike the true Joan of Arc, does not die at the stake, condemned by her church and executed by the English, but among friends from wounds won in battle. Here, explanation requires a historical context. Schiller wrote his play (1801) and Verdi composed his opera on it before the quest for the historical Joan began. The first French studies on her, such as the publication of the text of her trial for heresy, did not appear in France until 1844-55, and the first book on it published in English not until 1902. Hence, what Schiller and Verdi knew was the legend of Joan the Warrior Maid who rallied the French against the English at Orléans and crowned the Dauphin at Rheims. And that legend, until the end of the nineteenth century, focused less on her death than on her life, and at a time when she was not yet the patron saint of France. She would not become St. Joan until beatified in 1909 and canonized in 1920. Until then, to the church she was a heretic, and in Italy, where religious censorship was strong, the opera was fit to a different story and titled Orietta di Lesbo. 


What Schiller and Verdi added to the legend was a conflict for Joan between her heaven-blessed mission to rescue France and human feelings of love for another person. In Verdi that other person, who shares her feelings, is the Dauphin who, on being crowned, becomes Charles VII. Joan’s conflict is represented by musical voices, which only she and the audience hear. Angels, accompanied by harps, remind her that to gain heavenly aid in battle she has foresworn human love, and demons, to an alluring waltz, tell her she is beautiful and human love desirable. “Simple-minded,” say disapproving critics. “Simple,” others half-agree, but also stark, clear and not unbecoming a legend.


Of course, this being opera, there is a love scene for Joan and the Dauphin, soprano and tenor, with an angry baritone lurking in the shadows. The baritone, in this case, is not another suitor for Joan but her father, Giacomo, who fears she has made a pact with the devil and to save her soul betrays her to the English. Imprisoned in a tower held by the English, she sees a battle begin, confesses her sin in a prayer overheard by her father who then breaks her chains, and away she rides to lead the French to victory. How she escapes from the castle’s English guard is never explained, for we are hurried into a description of the battle by Giacomo, and then the scene in which Joan dies clutching her banner and spiritually, at least, ascends to heaven. 


The opera is an odd mixture, another hurdle to producing it, of the grand and simple. There are intimate scenes — Joan the farm girl hearing heavenly voices, Joan in love, and Joan losing her way amid the glitter of the French court — and the Dauphin in love and his grief (over a solo cello) at her approaching death. And then the grand: an assembly of the French court, the English army in camp, and the coronation of the French king. Something for everyone, and when it all fits together, as one critic wrote, “a dandy show.”


George W. Martin has written several books on Verdi, including his often reissued biography, Verdi, His Music, Life and Times.


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