Odyssey Opera’s ambitious Joan of Arc-themed voyage concluded on Saturday with the second of two performances of Verdi’s “Giovanna D’Arco.” It was a fitting end to this young company’s most innovative season to date.
From its inception in 2013, Odyssey has set its sights on lesser known corners of the repertoire, with one-off productions of works like Wagner’s “Rienzi” and Massenet’s “Le Cid.” But this year’s programming took its curatorial game to a whole new level. Local audiences had a chance to hear wildly disparate – and very rarely performed – takes on the Joan of Arc legend by Tchaikovsky, Donizetti, Norman Dello Joio, Honegger, and now Verdi. Presented in isolation, any one of these offerings might have been a tough sell, but as part of a clearly defined thematic journey, they each found their audience and the end result was a coherence and a compelling raison d’etre for the season as a whole.
As for this final Joan, she is in Verdi’s hands first and foremost a fearless warrior, one who meets her end not tragically at the stake but in a blaze of glory on the battlefield. Of course, the historical subject of Joan of Arc was for Verdi and his librettist both distant and not. In this score’s most rousing ensemble passages, it’s easy to imagine the composer’s own political faith in the Italian Risorgimento vibrating sympathetically with his heroine’s nationalist zeal.
“Giovanna D’Arco” itself premiered at La Scala in 1845, just three years after “Nabucco.” Both works are based on librettos by Solera, yet while “Giovanna D’Arco” proved popular at the time, few today would argue that its level of inspiration matches Verdi’s best from that period. In the faint (and to these ears, accurate) praise of Verdi scholar Roger Parker, the work is “hardly a masterpiece but is worth its occasional concert-hall revival.”
Odyssey’s choice to give it more than that, with a full staging in the Huntington Avenue Theatre, still made sense in the context of its season. And director Beth Greenberg’s production does a credible job, with abstract sets by Dan Daly and, at least for Giovanna, some silvery couture by Brooke Stanton suggesting a stylized take on iconic depictions of the hero.
On Saturday the singing as a whole — both from the chorus and principals — was not at the level of Odyssey’s strongest outings past, but the assembled cast was clearly committed to representing this rarity to maximum effect. The role of Giovanna, which seems to have enjoyed the lion’s share of Verdi’s imaginative investment, was taken up by Haeran Hong. Armed with both a sword and a clear-toned and nimble soprano, she centered her portrayal compellingly on Joan’s purity of heart.
In this version of the tale, Giovanna’s moment of heroism is melodramatically upended when her own father, Giacomo (a broad-voiced Daniel Sutin), denounces her in front of Carlo VII, the King of France (an ardent Marc Heller) and a large crowd gathered at the “piazza” in Reims. This and other crowd scenes provided the evening’s most forceful moments. For his part, Rose led a buoyant and fluid performance from the pit, drawing limpid playing from the orchestra right up through Joan’s final ascension to heaven — one last time for 2017-18.
VERDI’S “GIOVANNA D’ARCO”
Presented by Odyssey Opera
Gil Rose, conductor
At: Huntington Avenue Theatre, Saturday night, April 7