Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Seventh Spiel

Early this month Sam Shirakawa was in Mönchengladbach for a perfromance of Verdi's Giovanna D'Arco:

In Concert
Theater Krefeld, Mönchengladbach
2 March 2011


Some numerologists believe that 7 is the most spiritual of the natural numbers. It was also a lucky number for Ingmar Bergman. Giovanna d'Arco (1845) is Verdi’s seventh known opera. Its heroine hears voices. Her father is convinced she has given Satan her soul. Her historical eponym is a patron saint of France. Spiritual indeed, but not such a lucky number for Verdi. Following its ill-received premiere at La Scala, Verdi terminated his contract with the theater and did not return for more than 30 years. For its première in Rome, Papal censors demanded that Verdi cleanse Giovanna of all religious references. So the locale was switched to Greece and Joan became a Lesbian, who as Orieta di Lesbo, leads the expulsion of the Turks from her turf.

There is nothing mystic about why Giovanna is rarely performed today. Singers who can get their voices around its demands are hard to find.

Giovanna is not only tough to cast, a current string of performances in Mönchengladbach is hard to reach. Because the city’s main venue for the performing arts is undergoing renovation, the theater has set up temporary housekeeping in a hangar-like building on the outskirts of town, not far from the border between Germany and Holland. The space seats about 500, there is no balcony and the chairs are arranged on risers across the length of the hall. The acoustics are low on reverb. An unlikely place for grand opera, and hardly promising for a Verdi rarity.

Books, of course, shouldn’t be judged by their covers. Mönchengladbach‘s setting for Giovanna is living proof. I was half-dreading the production values with which a “provincial” theater would endow Verdi’s take on Joan of Arc and was somewhat relieved to find that it was to be performed in concert form.

Only somewhat relieved, because there would be no distractions if the singing was lousy.

As it turned out, the evening had all the thrills and chills the most exciting performances the Opera Orchestra of New York have conjured up over the years.

From the outset, Dara Hobbs made it clear that she is stepping over the threshold of what looks to be a great career. Dramatic sopranos who have agility as well as heft are not easily found, but singers in this Fach who also have warm, colorful timbre are unusual indeed.

The blond from Wisconsin seems to have it all. Neither the decorated ascents into the empyreal of Giovanna’s first aria, “Sempre all‘alba ed alla sera” nor the rigors of her contributions to the ensemble pieces fazed her. But the lower end of her range needs beefing up.

Hobbs squarely met the challenges Kairschan Scholdybajew presented as Charles. The tenor from Khazakstan has a large penetrating sound, whose brightness dims only at the very bottom of his vocal span. Scholdybajew gathered emotional strength in the latter portion of the opera, culminating in a heartfelt “Qual al piu fido amico” as Charles learns of Giovanna’s death.

Igor Gavrilov brought a dark baritone to Giovanna‘s father. Giacomo's despair in believing that his daughter is a tool of the devil (“Speme al vecchio era una figlia”) was especially moving.

Matthias Wippisch and Zhang Xu ably rounded out the testosterone-heavy cast.

Graham Jackson has been Music Director of the Krefeld-Mönchengladbach Theaters since 2003. The fruits of his efforts in steadily improving the orchestra and chorus were manifest.

Verdi’s librettist Temistocle Solera is generally tagged with adapting Giovanna d'Arco from Friedrich Schiller‘s drama Die Jungfrau von Orleans (1801). Solera claimed he had no help from Schiller. Whatever. Both versions depart from history: no immolation finale. A pity. But Solera’s lacks dramatic urgency, which may be another reason why Giovanna is so rarely performed. The music is something else. It glows with some of Verdi’s finest melodies, and the inventive scoring contains some glorious moments.

If you can't schlepp to the outskirts of Mönchengladbach, check out the commercial recording with Caballé, Domingo and Milnes under Levine. You'll be humming in no time.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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