Giovanna d'Arco / Odyssey Opera

by Ed Tapper

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday April 6, 2018

Haeran Hong in Odyssey Opera's "Giovanni d'Arco."
Haeran Hong in Odyssey Opera's "Giovanni d'Arco."  

For the finale of its season consisting of five operatic works based on the Joan of Arc legend, Odyssey Opera is presenting two performances of Verdi's "Giovanna d'Arco" at the Huntington Avenue Theatre. (It is repeated on Saturday, April 6 at 7:30 pm.) Perhaps due to its sober musical style and somber mood, the opera is rarely staged. The work does not display the consistent inspiration Verdi lavished on many of his other operas, yet, on hearing the score, one is struck by its many gorgeous touches, as well as several pre-echoes of masterpieces to follow.

Based loosely on Schiller, Solera's libretto has Giovanna dying on the battle field, instead of being burned at the stake, a modification that makes staging far less complicated. In true operatic tradition, Giovanna resuscitates herself just long enough to sing in the majestic final ensemble. Yet the work deviates from the classic operatic formula in that there is little romantic development between the leading tenor and soprano roles.

The part of King Charles of France was composed for a tenor, and in this production was sung by Marc Heller. His voice is unusual, as it has a baritonal color in the lower registers, then ascends to a piercing, dramatic tenor at the top. He modulated his sound somewhat in his opening aria, "Sotto una quercia;" but as the opera progressed, the high notes proved too voluminous and harsh, especially in a small theater like the Huntington.

Even more strident was baritone Daniel Sutin, who portrayed Giacomo, Giovanna's disgruntled father. His gargantuan baritone is certainly impressive in scale, yet he sang his role with an unrelieved fortissimo that became unnerving. It was most detrimental in the more tender moments with his daughter. Though his high notes had a biting edge, the low passages were tremulous. In a large outdoor venue such as the Arena in Verona, his singing may have been better appreciated.

From a physical and vocal standpoint, Haeran Hong made a believable, adolescent heroine. The petite soprano has an attractive, lyric instrument, with an affecting timbre. The act I, "O fatidica foresta," Giovanna's most famous aria, was impeccably sung; and Hong held her own in the many ensembles, giving a highly musical reading of the part. However, her light voice was no match for those of her colleagues, and it lacked the weight and power to satisfy the heroic aspects of a role previously sung by the likes of spinto sopranos such as Renata Tebaldi and Montserrat Caballe.

Considering the subject matter, Verdi composed no bravura music for the soloists. Suppressing solo virtuosity, he emphasizes the chorus more than he did in most of his other works. After a shaky start, the Odyssey Opera Chorus hit its stride, and sang well throughout, providing a rousing accompaniment to a number of the larger set pieces. Gil Rose's conducting was taut and spirited. The orchestra played with real vigor under his direction, and special praise should be given to the woodwind section for its expert handling of the solos in Verdi's tuneful overture.

The well-staged production was framed by sets that consisted of simple architectural elements set against a black textured backdrop, which managed to evoke a medieval flavor. The period costumes, quite lavish by today's standards, certainly helped. Giovanna's heavenly visions were enacted by dancers in outspread, silver wings; and in the heroine's final ascension into heaven, she unfurled wings of gold iridescence, and walked toward a golden orb at the back of the stage.

In spite of its uneven vocalism, Odyssey Opera's "Giovanni d'Arco" proved a respectable production of this Verdi rarity. The company merits high praise for continuing its mission to present to local audiences unusual works from the operatic repertoire.

The remaining performance of "Giovanni d'Arco" takes place on Saturday, April 7, 7:30 pm at the Huntington Avenue Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA. For ticket information and further details, visit the Odyssey Opera website.