“Why Giovanna d’Arco? It was the first opera I ever conducted, in 1983. And it had been missing from Roman stages for decades.” For conductor and music director Daniele Gatti, Verdi’s much-disputed opera always seems to mark new beginnings. After what felt like a way-too-long hiatus due to Covid, performances are on again at Rome’s Teatro Costanzi with a new production of one of Verdi’s lesser-known titles. A considerable amount of words have been spent on this opera, its flaws and its merits — so much so that it would be futile to try and contribute now to the discourse about its quality, which is regularly and rightfully questioned by scholars and theatre-goers alike. Giovanna d’Arco is far from being a flawless opera, but the real matter is: does it work on stage?

Nino Machaidze (Giovanna)
© Fabrizio Sansoni | Opera di Roma

Director Davide Livermore was faced with this question and tried to give a personal, congruous reply. Admittedly, his main concern was to highlight the duality of Giovanna’s nature: the young woman’s conflict operates at a deep level where her resolution to fight for her country clashes with her feelings for King Carlo VII. Fighting on the same side as her love interest, Giovanna’s inner struggle is not political but rather caused by some sort of gender disconnection which – predictably, from a male perspective – asserts the incompatibility of womanhood and militancy. 

Giovanna is tormented by a constant sense of dissociation, which Livermore conveys by having her stalked by a silent Doppelgänger and an ever-present horde of dancers under the guise of angels and devils. While at first visually striking, the ubiquity of the theatre’s corps de ballet quickly became redundant and distracting. According to the director’s own words, this was meant to provide action where the opera was most lacking in it; the result, however, was that of a paradoxical overcrowding for an opera that – so Livermore says – revolves around a conflict so intimate. Verdi and Solera’s work suffers from moments of stagnation which may be unpalatable, especially for modern audiences, but trying to fix that by turning to grand opéra tricks seemed counterproductive. This is not to say the staging didn’t have some appealing moments; but the production would definitely benefit from more scrupulous direction.

Giovanna d'Arco
© Fabrizio Sansoni | Opera di Roma

On a brighter note, the stage designed by Giò Forma makes an aesthetically pleasing setting. A vortex-shaped platform made of concentric circles inclined at different angles and a round screen for projections at the back of the stage prove to be a versatile and, at times, impressive scenery.

However, the most positive remarks are reserved for the musical performances. If there exist some operas that are almost failure-proof, Giovanna d’Arco is definitely not one of them. Its bumpy dramatic pace, a score that’s sometimes pedestrian and unimaginative and the questionable libretto don’t play to the work’s advantage. Yet, thanks to the commendable vocal cast and some clever, sensible conducting, the result was that of a great performance.

Susanna Salvi and Nino Machaidze (Giovanna)
© Fabrizio Sansoni | Opera di Roma

Nino Machaidze took hold of Giovanna’s conflicted nature and stayed true to it, while never failing to portray her as a proud, undefeated spirit. Her soprano proved more than reliable sliding through different registers and dynamics, displaying notable control over coloratura passages which she executed not as mere virtuoso moments but as occasions to delve into her character’s psyche. Overall, her Giovanna was a passionate combatant rather than a shy young woman.

Carlo is objectively not the most exhilarating among Verdi’s tenors; he hardly has any depth and doesn’t evolve throughout the opera. Still, Francesco Meli turned out to be a prime fit for the role thanks to his firm, expansive voice, paying great homage to Verdi’s writing. It is indeed difficult to confer charisma on such a character; yet the tenor was capable of giving a convincing performance as the heroine’s devout lover.

Francesco Meli (Carlo VII) and Nino Machaidze (Giovanna)
© Fabrizio Sansoni | Opera di Roma

Completing the trio was baritone Roberto Frontali, whose solid stage presence revealed the legacy of an experienced Verdi baritone. Despite some memory lapses, Frontali’s nuanced phrasing allowed his character to be rightfully villainous without turning him into a grotesque parody. The Chorus of Opera di Roma, which has no small role in the opera, also proved to be up to the task.

Embarking on the pursuit to highlight the merits of Giovanna d’Arco, Gatti succeeded in bringing dramatic life to the score. Although vivacious, his interpretation was never bombastic or overly belligerent, which in this case is indeed a tangible risk. Gatti’s careful control of dynamic balances and solicitous attention to the singable quality of Verdi’s melodies were clear from the sinfonia, which gave the woodwind soloists a good opportunity to exhibit their mastery, but as the evening unfolded, it became evident that such traits would define the entire performance. 

****1