Giuseppe Verdi’s take on Joan of Arc is a tad different from the young-girl-turned-saint who saved France but was, for her efforts, burned at the stake. Thanks to a play (“Die Jungfrau von Orleans,” or “The Girl from Orleans”) by Friedrich von Schiller, this is a psychological study of a young woman whose passion is to carry a sword, put on armor and, like a man, carry France to victory over its enemies. The problem, as Schiller so cleverly points out, is that she is a girl, not a man, and girls of that day and age who didn’t marry or go to the convent stayed home with daddy, and when he died, “closed his eyes.”
Giovanna was not such a girl and, as a result, she was seen — especially by her father — as an evil demon-filled nutcase. Worse, no self-respecting young woman who carried a sword instead of a dust cloth could possibly be a virgin, and that was probably the worst sin of all — back then.
It gets worse for our hero, er, heroine. There’s that little entanglement with Carlo VII, king of France. He loves her. She loves him. But those voices tell her that any earthly love will result in dire consequences. And she listens to those voices. So, yes, Giacomo, your daughter is pure as the driven snow, except for all that blood on the battlefield. But that’s a good thing. Isn’t it?
Finally, Daddy Giacomo learns the truth (he overhears Joan’s prayers while he’s hiding behind a tree stump in the forest), breaks the bonds chaining his daughter, gives her back her sword and lets her go off to battle, where she dies after winning the day and saving, for the second time no less, the king of France. Now Daddy and the king are together in their grief. But Joan, miraculously, comes back to life (to sing another aria) and, then, as a great white light surrounds her tear-stained, blood-covered shroud, she really dies and rises to heaven.
OK. That’s grand opera. And that’s the sometimes ludicrous story of “Giovanna d’Arco,” Verdi’s seventh opera, written in 1845 right after “Nabucco.” (Tchaikovsky’s “Maid of Orleans” was composed more than 30 years later and it’s interesting to note that the great Russian composer didn’t much care for the Verdi epic.)
But what really counts in opera is whether the story, as set by the composer, moves us. And, in this beautiful production by Sarasota Opera, we were moved. “Giovanna d’Arco” is, primarily, a stand-and-sing opera, and Martha Collins did what she could with a fairly static script. Moreover, Jeffrey Dean’s gorgeous sets, especially the last act’s spectacular cathedral, were artfully designed and cleverly wrought.
The music is gorgeous and this is probably the best production of this work we’ll see in our lifetime.
Rafael Dávila continues to grow, and his vocal and emotional interpretation of Carlo, the smitten king, is beautifully sung and believably acted. Marco Nisticó, another Sarasota Opera returnee, was probably the strongest character in the production, turning in a deftly defiant Daddy Giacomo with a large and warm baritone that’s being recognized in opera houses around the world.
Cristina Castaldi, as Giovanna, has a lovely bearing on stage, and her voice is, for the most part, attractive and feminine. But we have to wonder if this was a part for her. Verdi sopranos are hard to find, and Puccini and Mozart seem more suitable for her. But, given the constraints of her voice, she managed to get our attention, especially in the final scene when, thanks to the deft lighting by Ken Yunker, she became radiant as an actress and singer.
The smaller roles were sung and acted well by studio artists Heath Huberg and Benjamin Gelfand.
Once again, the orchestra surpassed itself, and under the electrifying baton of Victor DeRenzi — who seemed exceedingly at home in this opera — they almost seemed to fly out of the pit.