To commemorate the bicentennial of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi, the Chicago Opera Theater staged a production of Verdi's 1845 rarely-performed opera, Giovanna di Arco (Joan of Arc), which was selected by COT patrons as their choice to honor the Verdian bicentennial year. The opera's libretto by Temistocle Solera plays extremely fast and loose with the facts. In this version of the often-told tale of the Maid of Orleans, Joan's (soprano Suzan Hanson) military victories make her a love interest when she comes in contact with King Charles (tenor Steven Harrison), and her supposed heresies cause her father, Giacomo (baritone Michael Choldi) turn to the enemy to help defeat her. The plot is ludicrous and borderline offensive, though it presages other Verdi operas based on historical events, particularly Un Ballo in Maschera and Don Carlo, that also were historically inaccurate but brought a doomed romance to the forefront and made the actual events a mere backdrop, subject to alteration as needed to suit the (supposedly) crowd-pleasing love story. Yet, despite the shameless plot tinkering, the story has proto-Freudian elements to it, particularly in the way that Joan feels torn between her feelings towards both her father and the state-lover-power element represented by the king, motifs that would be more at home in the operas of Wagner and Strauss.
Musically, the presentation is as superlative of any opera that I have seen live. I had seen Suzan Hanson in COT's earlier presentation of Philip Glass's Fall of the House of Usher, where she was a haunting presence, clearly in possession of a beautiful voice, but limited to the fact that she merely produced a high-pitched note rather than any words, but here, as Joan, she was in excellent voice, and a strong dramatic presence. As the king, Steven Harrison was over-matched by his co-stars for sheer vocal force, but despite his limited vocal resources, he acquitted himself quite well. Place of honor, however, must go to baritone Michael Choldi as Giacomo, Joan's father. Baritones have never been in short supply in opera; however, Choldi's voice and his performance indicate that he would stand out, even in a distinguished group, which is not necessarily a description I would apply to any voice range in opera today. Mr. Choldi possesses a voice of exceptional power and stamina; his performance was not merely special, it is one that I will not forget as long as I attend opera. I feel confident Choldi could step into any baritone role with any opera company in the world and stand up not only any of his contemporaries, but also invite comparisons with great baritones of the past. The performance of the orchestra, a larger one than the COT usually accommodates, under the baton of Maestro Francesco Miloto, was on the whole quite good, though somewhat given to exaggeratedly dramatic playing at times. The COT's chorus was put to extensive use and both male and female ensembles supported the soloists magnificently.
Regular attendees of the Chicago Opera Theater know that their productions are not going to be mundane or conservative affairs, and the abstract production, directed by David Schweizer, was no exception to this rule. Schweizer has conceived of Verdi's opera as one attended to by a male chorus of fundamentalist (?) Christian missionaries and a female chorus of nurses who serve as Joan's inner demons and angels, respectively. Schweizer has instructed Ms. Hanson to play Joan's visions as though they were epileptic seizures, which does add an element of historical conjecture, if not historical fact, to the story of the Maid of Orleans. The opera's visual style seems to be a highly self-aware one, one that almost seems to creating itself in front of our eyes, as the characters are mechanically lifted on forklifts and ladders in front of our eyes, seemingly indifferent to the fact that this is a live production; it almost has the look of a dress rehearsal without sets. Part of COT's appeal is that they aren't afraid to take on unconventional works or unconventional productions, and this staging of Verdi is yet another chapter in their uneven yet adventurous approach, which I must commend.
Giuseppe Verdi's Joan of Arc will be presented by the Chicago Opera Theater at Chicago's Harris Theater, 205 E Randolph Street, on September 25, 27, and 29.
photo credits: Liz Lauren