Gratitude mixed with disappointment is one's immediate reaction to Chicago Opera Theater's new production of Giuseppe Verdi's "Giovanna d'Arco" ("Joan of Arc"), which opened Saturday night at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.
Gratitude that Chicago's second opera company is introducing an early Verdi rarity no other opera producer in the city's history has ever staged.
Disappointment that the production and performance fall short of balancing the musical merits of this blood-and-thunder product of the young Verdi's "years in the galley" against an admittedly feeble libretto and problematic dramaturgy.
"Giovanna d'Arco," the seventh of Verdi's 28 operas, was chosen by COT audience members as the company's contribution to the Verdi bicentennial celebration. The libretto, loosely based on a tragedy by Schiller, presents us with a very different portrait of the martyred Joan than the one we know from history and scattered plays and movies. The characters are largely made of cardboard and are stuck in dramatic situations that stretch credulity.
In Verdi's version, Joan's father, Giacomo, gives his valiant warrior-daughter up to the invading English army, under the mistaken belief that she has given her soul to the devil. Having convinced him of her chaste and godly devotion (in the first of Verdi's great father-daughter duets), Joan dies on the battlefield instead of a blazing pyre.
If the two-dimensional drama is an embarrassment, the score is full of rousing choruses, colorful orchestral writing and irresistible floods of melody that point to greater things ahead. The parts for the three leading characters — including Carlo, the French king with whom Joan has fallen in love — are formidably difficult to sing, however, and the near-impossibility of casting them even adequately in an opera world short on major Verdi voices keeps "Giovanna" forever at the fringes of the repertory.
David Schweizer's production attempts to sidestep the shortcomings by turning "Giovanna" into that cliche beloved of clueless stage directors: a modern-dress play within a play. The drama is enacted by members of a fanatical religious sect on a largely bare stage, with metal folding chairs as props. Fired up by viewing snippets of the 1948 Ingrid Bergman film based on the life of Joan, they assume positions and carry out a kind of redemption-ritual that's stage-managed by the barefoot sect leader, who doubles as Giacomo.
I'm not sure that piling new artifice upon old is in any way helpful in introducing the local public to the merits of a flawed but fascinating opera. Indeed, a misbegotten concept actually calls attention to the inherent problems more than it minimizes them.
And so we get characters riding around on crane booms, half-naked male choristers writhing around as Joan's demonic tempters and a final tableau that bizarrely equates fundamentalist zealotry with terrorism. (Jack Magaw designed the minimalist set, Janice Pytel the costumes and Keith Parham the lighting.)
Having first elected to present all 100 minutes of the show without intermission, COT changed its mind at the eleventh hour and broke it into two portions, separated by an awkward pause in the middle of the coronation scene, like a freeze frame — bad idea.
Perhaps had COT chosen to present "Giovanna" in concert form — as Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are doing with Verdi's "Macbeth," beginning Saturday night — that would have been a more credible, certainly more honest, way to approach this piece. But even at that, the company still would have had to find singers equal to the heroic demands of the music. And in that area, I'm afraid COT's "Giovanna" is wanting, as well.
By far the best of the three principal artists was Michael Chioldi as the relentlessly obsessed Giacomo, whose big, open baritone had the power, lyricism and, above all, the style needed to do justice to early Verdi. The father's forgiveness and benediction were among the vocal highlights of Saturday's performance.
Suzan Hanson threw herself into Joan's punishing music like the committed singing actress she is. But she is far from a dramatic coloratura with a powerful high register such as this role requires, and pitch problems along with tentative top notes made her performance dicey, at best.
Steven Harrison's singing grew more confident as he went along, the tenor mustering some fine soft singing during lightly scored passages. But he was a wooden actor, and his voice sounded several sizes too small for the role of the weak-willed French monarch. None of the characters related or reacted to one another with much conviction.
Conductor Francesco Milioto brought more Verdian brio, excitement and forward thrust than plasticity of phrasing to the score. His New Millennium Orchestra played quite well for him, although the contributions of both the instrumentalists and choristers could have stood greater weight and color. Cuts were observed, and the final chorus of demons was eliminated altogether.
Chicago Opera Theater's production of Verdi's "Giovanna d'Arco" continues through Sunday at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St.; $36-$125; 312-704-8414, chicagooperatheater.org.