Diva Netrebko Spars With Domingo in Salzburg Joan of Arc

Not many people have heard, or even heard of, Verdi’s opera “Giovanna d’Arco” (Joan of Arc). With a little help from Anna Netrebko and Placido Domingo, that’s sure to change.

The 1845 opera -- Verdi’s seventh -- is rarely performed now.

“Nineteenth-century taste at its most abysmal,” says the respected Penguin Opera Guide.

Tastes change, thank goodness. Netrebko (Giovanna) and Domingo (as her father Giacomo) are singing the opera at Austria’s Salzburg Festival in three concert performances. Domingo is performing for the first time since he was hospitalized in July after suffering a pulmonary embolism. As they power through their soaring arias and crazy cabalettas, they conjure up a mad world of lust, power and death.

Giacomo believes his warrior-daughter has sinfully given her body to the King of France, so he betrays her to her English enemies. He hopes they’ll burn her at the stake and thus save her soul.

Perhaps critics of the work think that this scenario stretches credulity too far. They should come to the U.K.

We’ve seen plenty of horrific “honor murders” of young women by their religious families over the past few years.

Even without that disturbing realism, Verdi’s piece still does what opera does best. It exaggerates emotions for psychological truth. It’s like looking at someone’s escaped id running rampant over the stage.

Lust or Glory

There are choruses of demons and angels who tempt Giovanna to sinful lust or heavenly glory. The triple-time demons sound surprisingly like jolly Neapolitan organ-grinders belting a folk tune. They’re earthy and upbeat, and more fun than the soprano and alto angels warbling their major thirds. Clever Verdi knew what he was up to.

Netrebko fires on all cylinders and then some. Her voice is big, dark and gleaming, and soars up to a top D flat with ease. She’s authoritative when rousing her troops, then torn and anguished when confessing her love for the king, and can swell or pull back on her top notes masterfully.

As Giovanna ascends to heaven -- she dies on the battlefield, not at the stake here -- you get the kind of singing which makes you remember why you love opera.

Her dress is a treat too. She sports an over-one-shoulder gold gown with a long train, split to the thigh, and shimmering with floral displays of rainbow sequins. If it’s not exactly Joan of Arc, it’s pure Netrebko.

Tingling Domingo

Domingo, in a baritone role, is on tingling form too. From the moment he staggers on stage clutching the music stand for support, you see a soul in torment. The passion pours out of him, and his agonized top notes fly with tenorial splendor.

(Here’s another addition to the expanding Domingo legendarium: in 1972 he recorded the tenor role too, so he probably knows the opera better than anyone alive.)

In their big reconciliation duet, both he and Netrebko turn away from their scores and act the scene fully with each other. Heart strings are tugged. Who needs a staging?

Tenor Francesco Meli, if not quite in their league, still does a fine job as King Carlo VII and pings out some rousing notes above the stave.

Conductor Paolo Carignani shows himself to be a stylish Verdian, now caressing long phrases, now pushing the drama on, and the Munich Radio Orchestra and Philharmonia Choir Wien perform for him with real passion.

There were microphones on stage for standard archival recording. If the festival could consider a broadcast or even CD, they’d be bringing joy to many, and even doing Verdi a fine service in his bicentenary year.

Rating: *****.

“Giovanna d’Arco” is also performed on Aug. 10 and 13. http://www.salzburgfestival.at or +43-662-8045-500.

Muse highlights include the New York and London weekend guides.

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Excellent
****       Very good
***        So-so
**         Mediocre
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)