With the exception of Nabucco, the music of early Verdi gets a bad press, whereas the works of Friedrich Schiller continue to be revered. On the basis of last night's La Scala performance of Verdi's Giovanna d'Arco (“Joan of Arc”), based on Schiller's Die Jungfrau von Orleans, the critics seem to me to be wrong on both counts.

Anna Netrebko (Giovanna) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Anna Netrebko (Giovanna)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Just possibly, that view is coloured by the quality of the performers. It's the first time I've heard Riccardo Chailly conduct opera live and I now understand what all the fuss is about: this was about as perfect an orchestral opera performance as I can conceive of. It's the achievement of poise that impressed me: at every point, the orchestra seemed like a coiled spring ready to deliver the next forward motion in the story. Giovanna d'Arco's music has been accused of being all effect and no substance: all I can say is that the effects worked on me. The big martial choruses and marches were powerful and stirring, while every line of the gentle woodwind interludes had shape and colour.

Anna Netrebko (Giovanna) and Francesco Meli (Carlo) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Anna Netrebko (Giovanna) and Francesco Meli (Carlo)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
On current form, it's hard to think of a better Verdi soprano-tenor pairing than Anna Netrebko and Francesco Meli. Their voices share many good things: enough power to fill a big space like La Scala without hint of strain, creamy smoothness of tone across the whole register, excellent control over the dynamics and phrasing that allows them to add colour and meaning to a line. Meli's voice has a hint of added grit: he can sound dangerous rather than just a bel canto smoothie. Netrebko seems to get better every year at singing her words with feeling rather than mere histrionics.

But the stand-out number of the evening came from neither Meli nor Netrebko but from Carlos Álvarez, in the role of Giovanna's father Giacomo. His recitative and aria “Ecco il loco ... Speme al vecchio,” sung in Reims as he awaits the moment in which he will publicly accuse his own daughter of witchcraft, was a masterpiece of the Verdi baritone's art: ardent, smooth, full of pathos. I could cavil that Álvarez's voice is a shade too smooth for the role (more a Count di Luna than a grizzled old man) but that aria took my breath away.

The problem with Giovanna d'Arco is that the drama doesn't stand up to scrutiny. The whole story turns on Giovanna's refusal to defend herself from Giacomo's accusation, apparently on the pitifully thin grounds that because she momentarily contemplated earthly love with king Carlo (a contemplation that remains unconsummated), she disobeyed her angelic voices and therefore deserves earthly punishment. We all know that Giovanna is going to die and go to heaven and Temistocle Solera's libretto never gives enough substance to make her dilemma credible, so it's difficult to sustain any real dramatic interest in any of the second half of the opera.

Anna Netrebko (Giovanna) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Anna Netrebko (Giovanna)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Faced with a difficult text, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier do their best, opting for visual effects to liven up proceedings. The framework is basically “it was all in her mind,” which is made clear to us by Giovanna and Giacomo being in 19th century dress (except when she is donning golden armour). In the overture, we see a tableau of the father nursing his daughter by her bedside in a room that could easily have been used for Act III of La traviata. But the demonic side of Giovanna's visions are made brilliantly real, first in video projections and then as physical demons burst on to the scene (the winged angels at the end are less effective). The medieval settings are stylised to the utmost, with the King appearing as one of those gold body-painted living statues that line Las Ramblas in Barcelona (and have since shown up in many other cities). It's even more striking in the latter part of the opera when he materialises as his own equestrian statue on a gilded horse. When Giovanna sees a vision of Jesus carrying the cross which is handed to her to bear, the visual effect is effective and memorable.

During copyright discussions, Solera denied that his libretto was based on the Schiller play – a denial generally disregarded today – and I shall now have to read the Schiller to make up my own mind. In advance of that, for a dramatic take on the Joan of Arc story, give me George Bernard Shaw's St Joan any day. But I can't ask for a more wonderful evening's playing and singing of Verdi.