This film presentation by Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas of La Scala’s new production of Giovanna D’Arco (Joan of Arc) composed by Guiseppe Verdi is immensely satisfying for several reasons. One, the opera is seldom performed anywhere, let alone in Australia, and a film presentation such as this gives we antipodeans a chance to see what might not otherwise be seen. Two, this particular production tackles head on the reasons why Giovanna D’Arco is not often produced, and offers an immensely satisfying solution.
Think of Joan of Arc, think of being burned at the stake. Think of evocative historical dramatic films such as The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999), which starred Milla Jovovich, John Malkovich, Faye Dunaway and Dustin Hoffman. Such films generally toe the line of historical accuracy and take only a few liberties. However, Verdi’s Giovanna D’Arco uses a libretto that stretches credulity to absolute breaking point. For example, in the opera, Joan, a peasant girl, finds herself in the presence of the King of France and promptly falls in love with him and tells him so. Not very likely. What is more unlikely is that he reciprocates.
Joan’s father believes that her zeal to lead the French forces against the English is due to her having been possessed by unnatural demonic forces, and so he betrays her to the English as a last ditched effort to stop her destroying her life. Ultimately she dies on the battlefield rather than being captured by the English, tried as a heretic and subsequently burned at the stake. In a nutshell, the libretto that Verdi uses dispenses with the great drama of the story and replaces it with some rather lame material.
Soprano superstar Anna Netrebko, brilliant in the title role, pretty much confirmed in interview that the historical flaws are the main reason the opera is rarely performed, because there’s not much of a story left. (One of the most appealing aspects of the Palace Nova opera film screenings are the backstage interviews with the stars and key creatives. They are so informative and enjoyable as you sip away at your glass of wine during the interval!) Netrebko explained that the unique and quite revolutionary design concept of the La Scala production gave a way out of the absence of the high drama and breathed new life into what is still a wonderful opera.
So, what is the design concept? Simply put, designers Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier locate the drama in Joan’s mind. The entire opera is set in Joan’s bedroom, and it begins with her in bed in fitful sleep. She is unwell and delirious. Her meeting with the King is now a reasonable proposition – it’s in her head – especially noting that the costumers and makeup artists present the King as a golden vision. From then on, the battle scenes are presented as a mix of projections and mass ensembles, and the projected vision includes images that could not be recreated on the stage. Visually the imagery and setting is very striking but the actual cinematography, which overuses close-ups at the expense of wide-angled shots, perhaps does not do it justice.
Anna Netrebko is at her absolute best in the role, and she devours the difficult tessitura inherent in the role. Baritone Devid Cecconi acts the role of Joan’s father well enough but is vocally not as commanding as Netrebko or tenor Francesco Meli who sang the King with passion and lyricism. The orchestra was under the expert direction of Riccardo Chailly, La Scala’s principal conductor.
The production was filmed live from Teatro alla Scala, Milan, on 7 December 2015, and how lucky are we to be able to experience it from the best seats in the house!
Reviewed by Kym Clayton
Rating out of 10: 7
Giovanna D’Arco will screen again on 17 February 2016 as part of the Palace Opera & Ballet cinema season, presenting the Royal Opera House, La Scala and Opéra National de Paris – exclusive to the Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas.