I’m usually a bit leery of watching older recordings of 19th century Italian opera. The aesthetic is rarely my thing. But, when I came across a recording of Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco directed by Werner Herzog I had to take a look. It was a pretty weird experience. It would hardly have been odder if Klaus Kinski had sung the title role. It’s a production from the Teatro Communale di Bologna and it was recorded in 1990.
Let’s start with the work because, although it is at a respectable 189th on the Operabase list, I’m guessing most people won’t have seen it. Dramatically it’s of the “utter travesty of history” school of opera. Among other things, Giovanna is freed from the stake by her father, who had previously betrayed her to the English, so that she can win more battles for the French and be ecstatically received into heaven by the Choir Celestial. (There are a lot of off stage heavenly and diabolical choruses.) The rest makes about as much sense. There’s a theory that it’s based on Schiller. I would not be surprised. Musically, it’s very early Verdi with lots of set piece arias, duets and trios and rumpty tumpty choruses. Some of the music is rather good and I’d take it over most bel canto.
Herzog’s production (co-credited with Henning von Gierke) is all over the place but mostly seems inspired by Hieronymus Bosch. There are even corpses on the curtain. The opening, featuring a despairing French army is chaotic with guys in pointy KKK hoods carrying giant crosses and a big rock and lots of shadows and it’s very dark. Even if the video direction were straightforward (we’ll come to that) I don’t think I would have much idea what was going on. Then we are in a forest that looks lifted from the Devil’s Glen scene in a traditional production of Der Freischütz with lightning flashes. But the action is almost entirely static. There’s an awful lot of park and bark from the three principals. That pretty much sets a pattern of alternating between utter chaos and nothing much happening.
The costuming is also pretty weird. Pointy hoods and strange masks abound, Carlo VII’s armour seems to have been made from a garbage can. And there are supers for no apparent reason wandering around doing corpsey things. A mother and her two children wander among the corpses. One of the children appears to have a stuffed owl. Even the formal garden in Act 1 Scene 2 has statues of corpses. And to cap it off, Giovanna’s ascent into heaven is about the hokiest thing I’ve seen on an opera stage.
Herzog did his own video direction and it’s almost as schizophrenic as the production. It seems to have three modes that come and go at random. Most of the crowd scenes get apparently random and very confusing changes of camera angle. When the focus is on the principals it’s either entirely straightforward or a rapid succession of fades and superpositions. There doesn’t seem to be any logic for the chopping and changing. Added to the weird production this makes it pretty hard to watch.
In some ways this is a shame because the three principals sing very well indeed though their acting kind of comes and goes. Giovanna is sung by Susan Dunn and it’s lovely idiomatic Verdi singing. Vincenzo La Scola as Carlo VII is also a very fine Italianate tenor with ringing top notes and excellent legato. Giacomo, Giovanna’s father, is sung by Renato Bruson at the height of his powers. The action really gets held up by the well deserved applause after his big numbers. Riccardo Chailly conducts and both the orchestra and chorus sound pretty good.
Technically it’s not great. It’s a 4:3 aspect ration TV quality picture and while most of the time it’s OK it can’t handle the dark and complex scenes. The LPCM stereo sound though is adequate. There are no extras on the disk and the Kultur release has only a track listing in the box. It’s been rereleased on Warner Classics so that may have changed. Subtitle options are English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Japanese and (oddly) Portugese.
Only for the insatiably curious…