Not much prime Verdi at stake in “Giovanna d’Arco,” but Sarasota Opera provides worthy advocacy

March 09, 2010

Marco Nistico as Giacomo, Cristina Castaldi as Giovanna and Rafael Davila as Carlo in Verdi's "Giovanna d'Arco." Photo: Rod Millington

For an organization that performs just four works in its main spring festival, Sarasota Opera has been more adventurous than most major or regional companies. Over the last two decades, they have offered such rarities as Moniuszko’s Halka, Nielsen’s Maskarade (in Danish), Rimsky-Korsakov’s May Night and Smetana’s Hubicka, the last three, all American professional premieres.

This season is a more conservative one by local standards. Yet Sarasota Opera’s ongoing complete Verdi cycle continues to draw aficionados from across the country to this toney resort community on Florida’s gulf coast, with this year bringing another rarity with Giovanna d’Arco, which opened Saturday night.

Verdi’s take on the Joan of Arc tale is his seventh opera, coming after the successes of Ernani and I Lombardi and before Attila and Macbeth. While Giovanna’s initial run of 17 performances was respectable, the opera has never gained a foothold in the repertoire and it’s not hard to understand why.

As in all early Verdi, Giovanna possesses some admirable moments, with several stirring choruses, a worthy duet and trio and a musically impressive if dramatically tortuous final scene. The patriotic scenario of Giovanna rallying the French against the English invaders clearly held interest for the nationalist Verdi, yet Temistocle Solera’s libretto fails to make much hay out of Joan’s compelling historical story. Indeed, Solera concentrates less on religious or patriotic fervor, than a phony love interest for Joan with the nobleman Carlo and a bitter conflict with her shepherd father, Giacomo (father-daughter conflicts, always a favored Verdi plot device).

Most bizarrely, Solera changes the ending from Joan’s being burned at the stake—a prime opportunity for an overwhelming final scene, one would think—merely to have her die offstage in battle and then be borne onstage, coming back from the dead, then dying again. Sainthood isn’t easy but, come on.

Sarasota’s long-running Verdi series has spotlighted works that have more quality music than their neglect would indicate (I due Foscari, I Masnadieri), yet, more often than not, rousing choruses and a few toe-tapping arias do not a successful opera make, even when the composer’s name is Verdi. Giovanna has its moments and a few striking touches—the jarring harpsichord that accompanies the offstage demons’ voices that tempt Giovanna toward earthy love, and the a cappella section of the trio that closes the Prologue (here, Act I), but Giovanna  d’Arco remains less than the sum of its parts.

Sarasota’s artistic director Victor DeRenzi has a gift for making musical sense out of even the most intractable Verdi operas, and his incisive rhythmic sense and lyric swagger provided as fine advocacy as this problematic work is ever likely to receive.

Cristina Castaldi stars in the title role of "Giovanna d'Arco.". Photo: Rod Millington.

Perhaps a stronger case could have been made for the work with a more charismatic singer in the title role.  Cristina Castaldi had most of the notes but not much else, the young soprano doing her best in this thankless role, and bringing some intensity to the final scene. But on opening night Castaldi seemed tentative and lacking in the heroic presence and vocal personality to make us believes this is the woman that armies are following. Vocally, Castaldi seemed a bit shrill and slender on top for a role that requires some stratospheric agility.

Company regular Rafael Davila brought his ample lyric tenor to the role of Carlo, making the most of his first act aria with chorus and singing sensitively in his final lament, Quale piu fido amico.

The finest moments on opening night were provided by Sarasota Verdi stalwart, Marco Nistico, as Giacomo. The Italian baritone brought a gravitas, unforced eloquence and refined vocalism to his solos, with especially touching expression to Giacomo’s regret at unjustly accusing his daughter, in Amai, ma un solo istante.

The production by designer Jeffrey W. Dean and Howard Tsvi Kaplan was in the company’s vein of sturdy tradition. Martha Collins’ direction had its stiff and stagy moments opening night, which likely will be overcome with repeated performances. The superb Sarasota Opera Chorus sang with fervor and imposing sonority under Roger L. Bingaman’s direction.

Holding the unwieldy structure together was DeRenzi, one of our finest Verdians, who again showed his distinctive ability to summon up dramatic fire and yearning lyricism as needed from the fine members of the Sarasota Opera Orchestra.

Giovanna d’Arco runs through March 20.; 941-366-8450.

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