Odyssey Opera's "Giovanna d'Arco": Burning Question

Jeremy Ayres Fisher & Haeran Hong in "Giovanna d'Arco"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)
Giovanna d'Arco is the fifth and final Odyssey Opera production of the season, comprised of five operas centered on Joan of Arc and The Hundred Years' War. This version, a Boston premiere, Composed by Giuseppe Verdi with a Libretto by Temistocle Solera, (based on a play by Schiller), while early, is unmistakably the work of Verdi, not mere “hurdy Verdi” as the young composer sometimes sounded. It shows the promise of what was to come as his work matured (for example, an orchestrated storm in the overture that presages the vocalized one years later in his Rigoletto). First performed at La Scala in 1845 in a heavily censored version, this current production, performed In Italian with English surtitles, restores the censored (notably by the church authorities) original text.

Marc Heller in "Giovanna d'Arco"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

The action takes place in 1429, first in the village of Domremy, France and the nearby forest where Carlo VII, King of France (tenor Marc Heller) claims to have had a vision of the Blessed Virgin. Meanwhile Giacomo, (baritone Daniel Sutin), a shepherd and father to Giovanna (soprano Haeran Hong), prays for his daughter's safety as she prays to be chosen to lead the French forces into battle against the English. Carlo pleads that she defend herself, as her father says she is in a pact with the devil. She ultimately has mystical dialogs with her father as she awaits her fate at the stake, finally convincing him of her purity, and he helps her to escape. She rejoins the battle, and, under her leadership, Delil, a French Officer (tenor Jeremy Ayres Fisher) and his troops prevail over Talbot, the English Commander (bass Christopher Carbin) and his troops on the battlefield of Rouen. The French celebrate their success in the Reims Cathedral Square, though Giovanna has died in combat. She revives, only to ascend into heaven to the accompaniment of angelic anthems of salvation and victory, aptly supplied by singers and harp in one of the theater's boxes.

As with the previous four operas this season, this performance was conducted by Gil Rose, the company's Artistic and General Director. The Stage Direction was by Beth Greenberg, who alludes in the program notes to opera's norms of both visual spectacle and extended vocalism that are so appropriate for this grand storytelling. The Scenic Design by Dan Daly, abstract, symbolic yet contemporary, was complemented by the Costume Design by Brooke Stanton (most notably in strikingly impressive androgynous battle gear for Joan), and the Lighting Design by Dennis Parichy.

Daniel Sutin & Haeran Hong in "Giovanna D'Arco"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

The meticulous playing of the orchestra under Rose's firm hand and the hearty chorus (here prepared by Mariah Wilson), are significant factors in all of Odyssey Opera presentations, but this one was especially notable for its dependence on three superb lead singers. Sutin was moving even in an inexplicably vacillating role, which he conquered by both serious vocalizing and dramatic impact. The same could be said of Heller, sounded every inch the complicated man and ruler, with extraordinary strength of musical line. But it was, as it should be, up to Hong to create a complex and convincing portrait of a historical enigma, belying her diminutive bearing with a purity and range that were, well, pure heaven.

We may never know with certainty who and what the real Joan was; that must remain an unresolved burning question. This production made sure we were reminded of her more human aspects of love, loyalty, and sacrifice. Once again local opera lovers were offered an incredibly nuanced performance of a rarely heard piece. The libretto may be clunky to say the least, but every member of this company added her or his embellishments to a Joan of Arc for the musical ages.  

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