THE heroic and tragic story of Joan of Arc is eminently stageable, and it is hardly surprising that it has surfaced as a play, a film, and an oratorio. The play by Friedrich Schiller (The Maid of Orleans) was overtaken in fame by George Bernard Shaw’s St Joan, first seen around the time when the country girl turned warrior was granted sainthood by Pope Benedict XV in 1920. Beside films, both silent (the graphic black-and-white The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928) and scripted, the Swiss-French composer Arthur Honegger, himself a pioneering film composer, brought the story to life in his oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake).
There were at least two 19th-century operas on the subject: Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans and Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco, on which he cut his teeth before composing his more famous middle-period works.
The latter has just been given a resoundingly successful performance at the Buxton Festival in Derbyshire. The work is not unflawed: it is sharply abbreviated; so the expectations of the finely worked Act I, where we see young Joan aspiring to perform God’s work by riding to ally with the French cause, perhaps weaken in the attenuated later acts.
The narrative, partly extracted from Schiller, includes an unlikely love match between Joan and Charles VII, the young king (“giving in to earthly temptation”); at the close, Joan is not burnt, but miraculously escapes English captivity to lead the French to further victory; then, near death, recovers to be pardoned by her alienated father and duet with king; and so on.
Much of this is fanciful, but the opera somehow still appeals, mainly because Verdi has already arrived as a composer: the music is strong and forceful, and might well belong to a later opera, while elements of the slimmed-down drama patently anticipate later stage works, most obviously La Traviata.
Buxton has made a speciality of reviving, in the main Opera House or as fringe events by visiting companies, less familiar operas, by Lortzing, Dvořák, Telemann, Salieri, and numerous others. By exploring neglected works such as Giovanna d’Arco it offers its audiences the chance to make up their own minds.
There was much to relish, and, thanks to a crisp and uncluttered production by Elijah Moshinsky, and atmospheric angular sets by the designer, Russell Craig — both are vastly experienced — the tension was maintained, and the story, as represented, was lucidly told and spiritedly performed.
Stuart Stratford’s conducting, as with the many productions he has conducted for Graham Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company, was exemplary. Things boded well in the opening sequence, featuring tympani and shivering strings, yielding to piccolo-topped ensemble, staccato flute, and then woodwind in sequence as we first encounter the kneeling Joan, her figure cowled in medium blue like an image of the Virgin to whom she is praying, reflected on the side wall and in shadow on the rear set. The three woodwind unite, and a classic Verdi scherzo gained from a steady brass underlay.
The tenor, Ben Johnson, has an adorable voice. In a pair of arias, he lamented the burden of ruling, and was even eager to forswear the crown and yield to the English. But his meeting in the forest with Joan, characterised by a series of highly lyrical and beautiful arias for both, underwritten by contributions from the fine Buxton chorus (trained by Matthew Morley), which clearly come up to Verdi’s later choral writing, gave him hope.
The drama, as in Schiller, is vitalised by the intervention of Joan’s father. Falsely reading the runes, he concludes that Joan is foreswearing God, embracing the devil (represented by a jeering red-clad chorus that uglily mocks her) and embarking on a full-scale affair with her monarch. He vows to prevent this by betraying her to his — and France’s — enemies, the British.
The Italian bass Devid Cecconi was utterly magnificent in this vexed paternal role: his is a massive voice that would impress in any opera house; his anger, shame, pain, and ultimate repentance were all finely captured, as were the glowering gray skies that neatly implied France’s near-demise.
Joan herself has some superb vocal sequences: prompted by a quartet of “angels” clad in grey nuns’ attire, she burst forth with “I am the warrior maiden who will lead you to victory” — a classic opportunity for some rum-ti-tum Verdi, to which the king responded: “God’s flame is in your eyes.”
Despite a slight tendency to flatten at key points, the soprano Kate Ladner offered a plucky lass, especially well directed, who flourished with string accompaniment followed up by pressing trumpet; a superb bass aria (“Original sin leads us along a troubled path”) follows a superb STB trio for the three main figures, wrapped around by a gutsy English chorus and more subdued French chorus: a classic Verdi formula.
The final entry of Joan, on a bier, makes way for her abjuring her role (“Pity me, I am no longer the messenger of the Virgin Mary”), where groaning violas lend a special feeling of pathos. Her father no longer sees himself as “the thunderbolt of God’s anger”. With cello support, she sings “May heaven’s will be done”.
The big build-up towards the end — certainly shades here of the mature Verdi — set the seal on Stratford’s conducting of this endlessly interesting score. Well worth its revival, Giovanna d’Arco was surely one of Buxton’s most admirable successes.