VERDI: Giovanna d'Arco
One might consider Mission to be a movie version of a recently issued Cecilia Bartoli Decca CD featuring music by Italian composer, priest and diplomat Agostino Steffani (1654-1728). This elegant movie by Olivier Simonnet produced by Pierre-Olivier Bardet begins with an actor portraying the composer commenting on his life and music. Filmed in the magnificent Chateau de Versailles, we see many of the famous rooms, all beautifully photographed. Bartoli offers a collection of arias from various operas by Steffani, sung with her usual virtuoso style, with baroque accompaniment by the fine I Barocchisti directed by Diego Fasolis. In several of the arias, Bartoli is joined by counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky. Listed as a bonus are two items, a virtuoso aria "Qui la dea cieca" from Noibe, Regina de Tebe, and a brief instrumental introduction from Amor Vien Del Destino. The two have a total playing time of less than 4 minutes—surely not much of a" bonus" for a disk that with a total playing timer of about one hour. However, this is a class production sure to delight Bartoli's legion of fans.
Verdi's Joan of Arc was his seventh opera. The libretto by Temistocle Solera is loosely based on Schiller's play Die Jungfrau von Orleans. In this version Joan is killed in battle, so we have no dramatic burning at the stake episode. Although the premiere at La Scala in 1845 was successful, the opera never became popular. It seems strange that it is not performed more often—it does contain many arias and duets that show Verdi at his best. In 1951 Renata Tebaldi performed Joan of Arc several times, but the U.S. premiere didn't take place until 1966, a concert performance with Teresa Stratas in the title role. Joan of Arc never has been given at the Met.There is a 1972 EMI recording with Caballé, Domingo and Milnes conducted by James Levine, and a DVD released of a 1990 Bologna performance with Renato Bruscon as the father, Susan Dunn in the title role and and Vincenzo La Scola as Carlo II, Riccardo Chailly conducting. This new DVD is a production in the Parma Verdi Festival given in their small theater Sets are basic and unimaginative, costumes fare better. Vocally there is little of interest here. Bruscon is a real old-timer—he was born in 1936—and it is remarkable that at his age he still is able to sing at all. The years surely have taken their toll (he is, of course, much better in the Chailly performance). Bulgarian soprano Svetla Vassileva is a beautiful woman and acts well. In recent years she has appeared in many major opera houses, but here she is severely taxed as Joan. Even Bowers cannot handle the dramatic tenor role of Carlo, and is dramatically primitive. Video and audio are excellent, but this cannot overcome performance deficiencies. If you wish to have Giovanna d'Arco on DVD get the Chailly recording which has elaborate sets, costumes, and a vocally assured cast.
German composer Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952), on the cutting edge of contemporary music, has composed prolifically. His work includes music for orchestra, stage, voice and solo instruments, and he is highly regarded by major conductors. Rihm's violin concerto was premiered by Anne-Sophie Mutter with the New York Philharmonic in 2010, and his latest opera, Dionysus-Dithyrambs, had its premiere at the Salzburg Festival the same year. Not all of his music is challenging to the ear: his orchestral work Verwandlung 2 played by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly is mentioned on this site (REVIEW). Rihm's individual style is very apparent in his one-act opera Oedipus composed in 1981 for the Deutsche Opera, the premiere of which is now available on this DVD. This is the disturbing story of the mythical king of Thebes, who unknowingly killed his father, married his mother, was defeated by Creon, blinded himself and became a wandering beggar. When Oedipus was presented in Santa Fe in 1991, one critic referred to it as, "...a collection of grotesque oppressors and humiliated victims....an exercise in unpleasantness...that turns tragedy into derangement, malice and pornographic violence.." And that is what it is, and we can be certain what we see and hear on this DVD is what Rihm intended. Sets are stark, a costumes appropriately bleak. The performance features Andreas Schmidt, at he beginning of his career, in the title role, and he—and the remainder of the fine cast—are to be commended for performing this very demanding music. An unidentified host provides a welcome 8-minute description of the plot with excerpts from the performance. Video and stereo sound are excellent. Approach with caution.
R.E.B. (February 2013)