On 7 December 2015, La Scala's 2015-2016 Season opens with Giuseppe Verdi's Giovanna d'Arco, which had its premiere at La Scala on 15 February 1845, but hasn't been staged at the Milanese theatre since 1865.
Bringing back this opera after 150 years is part of the artistic and cultural line that will link the following seasons at La Scala. The new directors wish to revive operas that were created for La Scala and to increase the number of titles in the repertoire, alternating the most famous with rediscovering the lesser-known masterpieces, and bringing them to the stage in scholarly editions.
With this opera, Riccardo Chailly, taking on his first La Scala opening as its Principal Conductor, initiates this project which will develop over the coming years alongside another of staging all the Puccini operas.
La Scala's new production of Giovanna d'Arco is directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier with a cast including Anna Netrebko as Giovanna, Francesco Meli as Carlo VII but unfortunately Carlos Álvarez, who should have been playing Giacomo, today announced that he wasn't well enough to sing, so Devid Cecconi, who replaced Álvarez for the dress rehearsal and the preview performance for Under 30s, will now undertake the role on the opening night.
Giovanna d'Arco will be presented in a new critical edition by Alberto Rizzuti for Ricordi and the University of Chicago Press. It is Verdi's seventh opera, and the fifth written for La Scala. Temistocle Solera's libretto is a liberal adaptation of Friederich Schiller's drama Die Jungfrau von Orléans written in 1801, which also served as the basis of Tchaikovsky's version of 1881. Verdi turned to Schiller for three further operas: I masnadieri (from Die Räuber), Luisa Miller (Kabale und Liebe) and Don Carlos.
Giovanna d'Arco opened at La Scala on 15 February 1845 and its great success with the audiences can be seen by the large number of performances after the premiere, 17, and the popularity of the waltz of the evil spirits that became a hit with the Milanese barrel organists. The reaction of the press, on the other hand, was icy.
The first Giovanna was Erminia Frezzolini, a prima donna of the bel canto repertoire who had already scored a hit with the premiere of I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata at La Scala two years previously. The opera remains a tour de force for great sopranos.
Despite the warm reception by the public, Giovanna was the casus belli that led to a parting of the ways between Verdi and La Scala. After the success of Nabucco and I Lombardi, the composer had begun to receive offers from other theatres: Ernani premiered in Venice, I due Foscari in Rome, and Alzira would open in Naples two months after Giovanna. Relations with La Scala's director, the impresario Merelli, became strained after he provided an inadequate staging for Giovanna d'Arco and agreed to publish the opera with Ricordi with disadvantageous conditions for Verdi. Relations were severed soon after. More favourable terms were agreed with Ricordi for subsequent operas, but La Scala had to wait until 1887 for its next Verdi premiere: Otello.
After the 1845 premiere, Giovanna d'Arco returned to La Scala twice: in 1858 for 7 performances and in 1865 with renewed success: 17 performances, as there had been for the premiere. For this last appearance at La Scala, Verdi chose Teresa Stolz for the main role, a singer he admired greatly and who was also the cause of much jealousy at home. She would become the first Aida at La Scala and the first ever soprano in Verdi's Requiem. The Milanese didn't hear Giovanna d'Arco again until 1951, when Alfredo Simonetto conducted a legendary concert performance with Renata Tebaldi, Carlo Bergonzi, Rolando Panerai and the RAI Orchestra.
The opera's fortunes during the 19th century were varied, also because the censors worried about possible parallels with the Risorgimento, and above all by its religious subject: Giovanna is a controversial character, put on trial for heresy and, in fact, was only declared a Saint in 1920. In addition to this, the libretto is unhealthily obsessed by the Giovanna's virginity, her father asking insistently, “Are you pure and a virgin?” To appease the censors, the performances in Rome and Naples had the story moved back two centuries and, absurdly, changed the title to Orietta di Lesbo.
The public was also confused as the title of the opera seemed to promise the grandiosity of an historical tableau, along the lines of Nabucco and I Lombardi, yet – despite its Meyerbeer-like crowd scenes – it centres on a domestic drama, focusing on the father-daughter relationship which, in Nabucco, was overshadowed by the grand choral scenes.
Certainly, when Verdi wrote to Piave after the premiere he had no reservations about the opera's worth, “My best work, without exception and without a doubt.” Such conviction comes from a certain unwavering attitude that Verdi would adopt when there were doubts expressed about his compositions, but it also reveals a genuine fondness for this opera.
Of all the works of the so-called “prison years”, Giovanna d'Arco is the one which most shows the way toward his future works, with an experimental score that acts as a bridge between his early career and the “popular trilogy” of the early 1850s: Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata. He took great care over the orchestration of Giovanna, which includes an accordion, bells, sistrums, harps, a cannon and, in Carlo's final aria, a surprising accompaniment of just ‘cello and cor anglais.
From a musical point of view, Giovanna d'Arco contains many ideas that Verdi would develop later on. For example, the attack of Act II has Dies Irae of the Requiem in a nutshell, while the love duet that ends the same act anticipates the duet in Un ballo in maschera. The march of the Act III is a try-out for the triumphal scenes of Don Carlos and Aida; while Act IV opens with a dramatic situation that we find again in Il Trovatore and continues with a battle that has strong parallels with that of La forza del destino. Also, the hues of Giovanna's death in S'apre il ciel are found, decades later, in the last duet in Aida, O terra addio.
By the way, Verdi divided the opera into four acts, whereas for the printed score the first act was called the prologue, followed by three acts. In this edition for La Scala, Verdi's intentions are restored, and the new production unites the acts, leaving just one interval between the second and third acts.
An unknown opera?
Although Giovanna d'Arco has been absent from La Scala since 1865, it has nevertheless received a good number of performances elsewhere, often linked to the name of the great sopranos. In 1951 there was the concert performance, conducted by Alfredo Simonetto with Tebaldi, who had just debuted in the opera in Naples as part of the celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of Verdi's death, and she would later reprise the role at the Paris Opera. In 1972 came the first studio recording, which was phenomenal! In the Abbey Road studios were Montserrat Caballé, Plácido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by the 29-year-old James Levine. The same year, Katia Ricciarelli debuted as Giovanna at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice under the baton of Carlo Franci, and Maria Chiara recorded the aria Sempre all'alba with Nello Santi in 1973.
Riccardo Chailly conducted Giovanna for the first time in Bologna in 1989 with Werner Herzog as its director and Susan Dunn, Vincenzo La Scola and Renato Bruson leading the cast. Among other performances since then were those at Covent Garden in 1996, conducted by Daniele Gatti with a production by Philip Prowse and June Anderson as Giovanna; at the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa in 2001 was the Werner Herzog production with Mariella Devia as Giovanna under the baton of Nello Santi; in 2008 at Parma's Teatro Regio was a production by in Gabriele Lavia conducted by Bruno Bartoletti with Svetla Vassileva; and in 2015 at the Festival della Valle d'Itria held in Martina Franca, Riccardo Frizza conducted Jessica Pratt as Giovanna in Fabio Ceresa's production. At the Salzburg Festival the opera was presented in concert form in 2013 with Paolo Carignani conducting Anna Netrebko, Francesco Meli and Plácido Domingo: the performance was recorded for a CD issued by Deutsche Grammophon.
La Scala's 2015 cast
The librettist Temistocle Soleil reduced the 27 characters of Schiller's tragedy to just 5, so a swarm of voices is reduced to a domestic drama, played above a chorus which comments on the action as in a Greek tragedy. The cast for the season opening is composed of some of today's most important voices, all of them already heard and applauded in Milan. Anna Netrebko debuted as Giovanna in Salzburg in 2013, again with Francesco Meli as the king. She first appeared at La Scala in 1998 in a concert with the La Scala Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. Two years later she returned, again with Gergiev, for Prokofiev's War and Peace. She next appeared as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni with Daniel Barenboim on 7 December 2011, and the last time she appeared as Mimi in La bohème with conductor Daniele Rustioni in 2012.
For Francesco Meli, this is his second 7 December. After his début at the theatre in Poulenc's Dialogue of the Carmelites in 2004 he returned as Cassio in the performances of Otello conducted by Riccardo Muti, and as Arbace in Idomeneo, the opening opera of the 2005/6 season which was conducted by Daniel Harding. In subsequent years he was Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni with Dudamel in 2006, Leicester in Maria Stuarda with Fogliani in 2008, and the Italian Singer in Rosenkavalier conducted by Jordan in 2011. Carlos Álvarez's debut at the theatre was in 1996 with Riccardo Chailly when he sang Sharpless in Butterfly. From 1999 to 2006 he returned as Don Giovanni with both Muti and Dudamel. Devid Cecconi, his replacement, will be making his house debut.
Riccardo Chailly became La Scala's Principal Conductor in January of this year and in January 2017 becomes the theatre's Musical Director. His debut at La Scala was in 1978 with Verdi's I Masnaadieri. Subsequently he conducted operas by Rossini, Puccini, Prokofiev and Bartok, and the opening of the 2006/7 season with Aida. During the future seasons in Milan he will concentrate on the Italian repertoire with a cycle of Puccini's operas, a project which began in May of this year with Turandot and will continue in May 2016 with La fanciulla del West. Chailly has already conducted Giovanna d'Arco in Bologna in 1989 for a production by Werner Herzog and his past also contains another Giovanna when he recorded Rossini's Cantata with the La Scala Philharmonic in a transcription by Salvatore Sciarrino.
Telling a story by bringing the intentions of the composer to a modern audience while respecting the score, that is the guiding rule adopted by the pair of directors who for more than 30 years have been at the heart of a tight-knit team. Apart from the two directors – the Belgian Moshe Leiser and the Parisian Patrice Caurier – there is also the set-designer Christian Fenouillat, costume-designer Agostino Cavalca and the lighting-designer Christophe Forey.
Leiser and Caurier have worked together since 1983 and have always underlined the unifying character of opera, a work where music and theatre must develop together. Provocative in their stand against ‘decorative' theatre, the two directors have set the operas they've staged in different times and places but always looking for a location close to the truth of the text and the intentions of the authors.
After their first years in France, especially in Lyon, they have created productions for the Royal Opera House in London, the Theater an der Wien and the Vienna State Opera, the Mariinsky in St Petersburg, the Liceu in Barcelona, the Zurich Opera and the Met in New York. In 2014 they won the International Opera Award for their production of Norma with Cecilia Bartoli for the Salzburg Festival.
The Maid of Orléans has inspired composers of different eras: Rossini, Tchaikovsky (The Maid of Orleans), Honegger (Joan of Arc at the Stake). At La Scala, Honegger's oratorio was performed in Italian in 1954 with Gianandrea Gavazzeni conducting, Ingrid Bergman and Memo Benassi were the actors, and it was directed by Roberto Rossellini.
In 1961, Peter Maag conducted the rarely performed Giovanna d'Arco by Marco Enrico Bossi with Raina Kabaivanska.
Among those who have sung Rossini's Cantata at La Scala are Marilyn Horne in 1979, Teresa Berganza in 1988 and Joyce Di Donato in 2007.
Live broadcast and backstage internet stream of the opening night
This year, the opening of the season will be broadcast live by the cameras of Rai5 in television in 13 European countries and will be relayed soon after to Japan, as well as 22 European radio stations. It can also be followed live in cinemas in Italy, France, Spain and Germany with a relay to Korea, Japan, the United States and Australia.
This is the second time La Scala broadcasts a live stream from the wings, together with contributions from their 200,000 Twitter followers. The stream will start at 17.10 CET with interviews with the singers, conductor, directors and La Scala's director, Alexander Pereira. The opera begins, at 18.00 and during the acts Silvia Farina, head of the theatre's Digital Department, and Graham Spicer, aka Gramilano, will keep quiet to let viewers listen to the music while the cameras, using infrared when necessary, will roam around the offstage areas spying on the singers, actors and musicians offstage and on. The stream can be accessed on the following sites: Teatro alla Scala: www.teatroallascala.org – YouTube www.youtube.com/teatroallascala – Rai TV www.cultura.rai.it/live – Corriere della Sera www.corriere.it.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.