21 July 2014

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – GIOVANNA D’ARCO (A. Netrebko, P. Domingo, F. Meli; DGG 479 2712)

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi - GIOVANNA D'ARCO (DGG 479 2712)

GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Giovanna d’ArcoAnna Netrebko (Giovanna d’Arco), Plácido Domingo (Giacomo), Francesco Meli (Carlo VII), Roberto Tagliavini (Talbot), Johannes Dunz (Delil); Philharmonia Chor Wien; Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Paolo Carignani, conductor [Recorded in concert in the Felsenreitschule, Salzburg, Austria, during the Salzburger Festspiele, August 2013; DGG 479 2712; 2CD, 108:49; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​The curious student of history in search of the ‘real’ Jeanne d’Arc who may or may not have contributed meaningfully to the defeat of the besieging English and Burgundians at Orléans in 1429 should seek her neither in Friedrich Schiller’s 1801 play Die Jungfrau von Orleans nor in Giuseppe Verdi’s 1845 operatic setting, Giovanna d’Arco. The pompous, rather foolish, excessively-Romanticized girl of the theatrical and operatic stages is a dramatic recreation of a figure about whom very little is known with any degree of certainty: recognized by many as one of the greatest Frenchman, her significance and even her very existence are dismissed by some revisionist historians. For the young Verdi, she was an ideal—and idealized—heroine and a near-perfect character for Erminia Frezzolini, the accomplished soprano and pupil of the influential Manuel García who enjoyed great success as Giselda in the first production of Verdi’s I Lombardi alla prima crociata. Though Verdi and the audience at the opera’s La Scala première had sincere affection for his Giovanna, critics were unimpressed by her musical finery. In a real sense, her reputation has never recovered: several eminent sopranos have lent their talents to Giovanna’s cause both on stage and on records without having won for her a place in the standard repertory alongside her Verdian sisters. Still, not even the most neglected of Verdi’s operas is devoid of interest, and any opportunity to appreciate the beauties of Giovanna d’Arco is welcome. Recorded in concert during the 2013 Salzburger Festspiele and featuring two of opera’s most celebrated singers, this performance promises much, but in several notable aspects it fails to deliver more than basic proficiency. Just as the attentive historian will not find a reliably factual portrait of Jeanne d’Arc in Giovanna d’Arco, the steadfast admirer of the composer’s music sadly will not find in this recording the truest essence of Verdi’s opera.

Capably conducted by Paolo Carignani, the carefully-balanced but vibrant singing of the Philharmonia Chor Wien and convincingly Italianate playing of the Münchner Rundfunkorchester are preserved in acoustics that uphold Deutsche Grammophon’s long-standing tradition of sonic excellence. With fine performances by tenor Johannes Dunz as Delil and bass Roberto Tagliavini as Talbot, this recording has the sturdiest foundation of any performance of Giovanna d’Arco on disc. In this era of allowing listeners to make their own decisions about composers’ successes and failures by performing scores note-complete, the extensiveness of the cuts inflicted on Verdi’s score in this performance is maddening. The logic behind some of the excisions defies explanation: the cut of a passage in Giovanna’s cavatina in the Prologue, ‘Sempre all’alba ed alla sera,’ relieves the soprano of a phrase descending from D6, for instance, but Verdi provided an ‘oppure’ for the offending passage that rises no higher than B5, a note demanded several times in the cavatina. If a singer cannot manage a few additional bars in the same vein as the balance of her music, ought she to be singing the rôle at all? Each of the principal characters loses stretches of music ranging from a few bars to a few pages, and virtually every number in the score is truncated in some manner. Cabalettas are shorn of their repeats, depriving the singers of opportunities to ornament their vocal lines in the manner of the bel canto idiom that Giovanna d’Arco embodies. With first-rate musicians on hand to support the principals, such unmusical disfigurement of Verdi’s score is equally inexcusable and inexplicable. If the intention was to perform ‘highlights’ from Giovanna d’Arco, the resulting recording should be identified and marketed accordingly.

In the theatre, where there is aural space into which the voice can expand, Italian tenor Francesco Meli can prove an exciting singer. In the context of an audio recording, his timbre is somewhat monochromatic, the unrelenting brightness of tone ultimately rendering his mostly tasteful singing monotonous. In this performance, his native Italian diction gives his portrayal of the floundering Carlo apt dignity, but there is little differentiation among the various emotions of his character’s plight. In Carlo’s cavatina and cabaletta in the Prologue, ‘Sotto una quercia parvemi’ and ‘Pondo è letal, martiro il serto,’ Mr. Meli sings strongly, his voice firm and even throughout the range. In the course of the performance, however, Mr. Meli’s dynamics are virtually unchanging, and there are passages in which his volume precludes the finesse that his vocal lines need. In the unaccompanied trio in the Prologue’s finale, ‘A te, pietosa vergine,’ Mr. Meli both sings and phrases beautifully, and in the reprise of the galloping principal theme at ‘Or sia patria il mio solo pensiero’—one of the fabulously banal tunes that came easily to the young Verdi but do not depart from the listener’s memory without a fight—his virile presence is winsome. His singing in the duet with Giovanna in Act One, ‘Ho risolto…E in tai momenti,’ is passionate, but the passion here is the same as that in the Prologue; and, for that matter, that in successive scenes. Mr. Meli’s best singing comes in Carlo’s romanza in Act Three, ‘Quale più fido amico,’ which he shapes with true feeling and obvious attention to the nuances of the text. Granted more of Carlo’s music in which to make his mark, Mr. Meli might well bring greater presence to his performance. Here, he creates a forthrightly-sung but dramatically pale monarch. It is a satisfying performance but one that barely even indicates the distinctive elegance of which Mr. Meli is capable.

Plácido Domingo recorded Carlo in Giovanna d’Arco an ordinary career ago, but it hardly needs to be stated that the Spanish singer’s career has been and continues to be anything but ordinary. The extent of the success of Mr. Domingo’s endeavors in baritone repertory—and particularly in Verdi’s singular baritone rôles—is among the most passionately-debated topics in opera today. It must be conceded that the voice remains in generally excellent condition. The timbre has tarnished somewhat and the focus of the tone loosened, but there is surprisingly little unsteadiness. The tessitura of a rôle like Giacomo in Giovanna d’Arco poses no difficulties, but the ease with which he produces the notes required by Verdi undermines the effectiveness of Mr. Domingo’s singing. A vital element of the visceral impact of Verdi’s baritone parts is the sense of danger: the truly memorable Verdi baritone should sound as though he is taken to the limits of both his range and his technique. In that regard, Mr. Domingo might be said to sing Giacomo’s music in this performance almost too well. Phrasing is now guided more by physiological necessity than by any great insightfulness, but Mr. Domingo retains consummate musicality. Regardless of the range of the music that he is singing, he also remains a tenor. Nonetheless, this performance is his most accomplished outing in a Verdi baritone rôle to date. The basic timbre is dark and burnished, and though his diction has lost its sharpness he delivers the words with gusto. He knows his way round a Verdi score, and even his scant experience with Giovanna d’Arco is apparent. In the Prologue, moreover, only Mr. Domingo seems to take any real interest in the drama. His contributions to the closing trio are appropriately stern, and he descends to the lower reaches of Giacomo’s vocal lines with greater freedom than he has brought to many of his performances of baritone rôles. Mr. Domingo gives an expansive account of his aria in Act One, ‘Franco son io, ma in core,’ and his performance of the subsequent cabaletta ‘So che per via dei triboli’ conveys the conflicting bitterness and despair of the text. He comes nearest of any of the principals to limning a genuine bel canto line in his singing of the romanza in Act Two, ‘Speme al vecchio era una figlia,’ and the power that he brings to Giacomo’s denunciation of Giovanna in the Act Two finale has all the magic of Mr. Domingo at his best. The duet ‘Amai, ma un solo istante’ in Act Three is one of the earliest flowerings of Verdi’s emblematic explorations of the relationships among fathers and their daughters, and Mr. Domingo sings his part in it with emotional involvement. This Giacomo imparts the cruelty of recognizing, like Rigoletto, that his injured daughter still lives only to then lose her. Mr. Domingo continues to be an engaging artist, and this is among his finest performances in his adopted baritone repertory.

Anna Netrebko is an exasperating singer. Especially in Salzburg, where even details of her dining and shopping habits are fodder for public discussion and emulation, she is as close to holding the title of prima donna assoluta as any soprano can claim to be in 2014. The basic natural vocal material is superb: largely free of the dreaded Slavic shrillness and wobble, the voice has an attractive timbre, ample thrust, and moderate agility. The tone often lacks a firm core, though, and clumsy handling of vowel placement leads to an intermittent hollowness in the lower octave. Now that she is putting her commercially-successful but mostly ill-advised forays into bel canto repertory behind her, Ms. Netrebko is venturing ever further into the Verdi repertory. Her portrayal of Giovanna in this recording is representative of both what she can achieve when her artistry is completely committed to a performance and how inconsistent she can be when it is not. Ms. Netrebko’s singing of Giovanna’s beautiful cavatina in the Prologue, ‘Sempre all’alba ed alla sera,’ is unfocused and imprecise, and her technique lets her—and Verdi—down in the Prologue’s finale, in which her vocalism is unpolished. The ascents to C6 are managed relatively easily, but her decision to interpolate a desperate-sounding top C to bring down the curtain on the Prologue is clearly motivated by a desire for applause rather than an expression of Giovanna’s youthful exuberance. ‘O fatidica foresta,’ the romanza in Act One that contains some of the most beautiful music in the opera, receives a lovely performance from Ms. Netrebko despite triplet figurations that are not always cleanly articulated. Her singing begins to warm in the duet with Carlo that brings Act One to a close, and she rises to a strong, resonant B♭5 in the finale’s coda. In Giovanna’s duet with her father, Ms. Netrebko responds to Mr. Domingo’s fervor with singing of increased dramatic impetus, and here her command of the tricky fiorature is far more impressive than earlier in the opera. Ms. Netrebko rises at last to the level of assured, emotive singing that her reputation attributes to her in Giovanna’s death scene, in which her traversal of the andante, ‘S’apre il ciel discende la Pia,’ is gorgeous. She manages the sustained B♭5 with sensitivity and great poise, and her Giovanna takes her leave of her father, her king, and her country with moving grace and simplicity. It is possible that Act Three in this recording was taken from a different performance than the recordings of the Prologue and Acts One and Two: if so, the disparity between her singing of Act Three and of the first three parts of the opera that this reveals is a disservice to Ms. Netrebko. With so much of Giovanna’s music missing in this recording, Ms. Netrebko’s performance of the title rôle cannot be even-handedly compared with Montserrat Caballé’s radiant singing in the 1972 recording with James Levine and the younger Domingo. The Russian soprano’s instrument is more suited by nature to Giovanna’s vocal lines than those of Renata Tebaldi, Teresa Stratas, or Dame Margaret Price, the latter pair of whom were heard in the rôle in concert in New York, but this performance can ultimately only be deemed a partial success. When at its best in Act Three, however, Ms. Netrebko’s singing is the work of a bona fide prima donna.

Having originated in a celebration of the Verdi Bicentennial and enjoyed the participation of a team of talented musicians, this recording is both a competent, fitfully enjoyable performance of one of Verdi’s neglected early exercises in the forms that, with ever-broadening modifications, served him so well until the end of his career and a missed opportunity. It is difficult to reconcile a sincere desire to honor Verdi’s legacy with concert presentations and a recording of Giovanna d’Arco with the brutal pruning to which the score fell victim in that context. As a souvenir of Plácido Domingo’s Giacomo, a rôle to which he is unlikely to return often if at all, this recording is a worthwhile addition to the discography. It is also a venture that offers many lessons. As many other performances and recordings have likewise confirmed, a cast of ‘star’ singers does not necessarily constitute a cogent ensemble for any given opera. Foremost, though, this Giovanna d’Arco intimates that a recording that takes such a cavalier approach to an underappreciated score primarily frustrates the audience it is intended to delight.