From its very first chords, Buxton Festival’s Giovanna d’Arco had the shivers rolling down my spine. The curtain lifts on asymmetrical slanting black surfaces, glossy as a grand piano, forming a corner at the heart of the stage. In its apex, Giovanna huddles, charmed and terrified at turns by the visions we hear depicted in Verdi’s overture. This early opera may lack the subtle humanity of Verdi’s more mature works, but its psychological intensity is its finest feature. Russell Craig’s slickly minimalist set is designed to call up a psychologically concentrated space, focusing our attention on the predicament of each character in turn. They are each trapped in their roles: Giovanna, the sublime mystic who must therefore deny herself earthly love (for Carlo); Carlo, the king, whose power cannot give him the only thing he truly desires (Giovanna); and Giacomo, the jealous father whose suspicion of his daughter blinds him to her true merit until it is too late (convinced Giovanna has given her life not to angels, but to demons). Director Elijah Moshinsky wields this trio with skill, allowing us to feel the doomed love between Giovanna and Carlo, and bringing out Giacomo’s despair, although the father-daughter bond seems to have more duty than passion in it for Giovanna. 

Ben Johnson (Carlo) and Kate Ladner (Giovanna) © Jonathan Keenan
Ben Johnson (Carlo) and Kate Ladner (Giovanna)
© Jonathan Keenan
Costumes meld medieval tunics and sashes (emblazoned with fleurs-de-lys on a blue ground for the French, lions on a red ground for the English) with First World War clothing, both military and civilian, indicating the universality of war. This looks smoother on stage than it might sound: a medieval silhouette is achieved for the female chorus by the use of snoods, which in their chunky knitted form also look like wartime make-do-and-mend, while some soldiers have their sashes spray-painted onto quilted period flying jackets. Lighting by Malcolm Rippeth, alongside imaginative visual projections, give us a beautiful sense of windswept clouds, fierce storms, red skies and moonlit woods. Physical locations are announced on the side-titles, allowing us to keep track of whether we are in the forest, in Reims, or in prison.  

The Northern Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Stuart Stratford, made a spectacular sound all night: my spine didn’t stop tingling. Verdi plays mercilessly with our moods in Giovanna d’Arco, interleaving some of his most menacing dark lines with delicate pastoral melodies to illustrate the choice that faces Giovanna: the happy, fulfilled life of a country girl, or the glorious and painful destiny to which the angels (dressed as nuns and appearing above the black screens) call her in tones of unearthly purity. Meanwhile, some gleefully devilish demons, masked and dressed in red, act out the carnal pleasures she rejects to some fiendishly good Italian barrel music.

Kate Ladner’s acting constantly impressed as Giovanna, allowing her to be truly transported by religious ecstasy, rather than simply sending her up as an insane zealot. Giovanna is both empowered by – and terrified of – her vocation, with a faith so simple that at her father’s first accusation, she agrees she has sinned. Ironically, it is her innocence of real evil that makes her condemn herself, for her only sin is giving in momentarily to her love for Carlo. In her early scenes, Ladner was holding tension in her voice, which made her voice harsh, even strident; she gradually improved her control, but never completely, and some of her music suffered as a result.

Ben Johnson (Carlo) and Kate Ladner (Giovanna) © Jonathan Keenan
Ben Johnson (Carlo) and Kate Ladner (Giovanna)
© Jonathan Keenan

As Carlo, Ben Johnson sang gloriously throughout, taking regal command of the stage and his scenes, and kindling real chemistry with Ladner in their duets. Johnson’s crisp, excellent Italian accent and remarkable clarity of projection are a treat throughout: his tenor seems made for this music, inhabiting every line with real presence in a top-class performance.

Giacomo, Giovanna's father, was superbly portrayed by Devid Cecconi, his liquid baritone thrilling with emotion but sustained by disciplined vocal control, reaching a dazzling spectrum of notes. Cecconi gives us a good sense of a simple religious man, quick to suspect but equally quick to forgive when Giovanna’s real innocence is made clear to him.

The chorus of soldiers, women and devils were all individually characterised, making each performer interesting to watch in their own right, but also singing smartly together. The devils in particular benefited from excellent choreography. The angels, by contrast, were necessarily a more homogenous quartet, their immaculate habits and large traditional nun’s hats making them seem somehow supernatural against the dusty, sweaty warzone beneath them.

Apart from Ladner’s unevenness, which may resolve in the run, my only other reservation has to be the use of sound effects, which started as being surprising but effective (distant booming of cannon fire) but soon felt trigger happy as the cannons boomed closer and closer, and louder and louder. Verdi has painted battle into his score in the brightest colours – the barrage of bangs soon felt unnecessary. However, it kept us right on the edge of our seats until the tragic close.