Opening Night at La Scala: Verdi's 'Joan of Arc'

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Any number of famous, historical characters have inspired a wide range of music. But the musical legacy of the mysterious -- and mystical? -- 15th-century heroine Joan of Arc has a sheer variety that may come as a surprise.

In the world of pop music alone, there's a dreamy Leonard Cohen song called "Joan of Arc," popularized by Judy Collins; a more contemporary, up-tempo tune by the indie-rock band Arcade Fire; and there's even a number called "Miley Cyrus Vs. Joan of Arc" -- an installment of the widely popular YouTube series, Epic Rap Battles of History. (Joan wins, by the way; it's really not much of a contest.)

The realm of classical music boasts a number of Joan of Arc operas, in a similarly wide range of styles. The 20th-century Swiss composer Arthur Honegger wrote one called Joan of Arc at the Stake. Tchaikovsky visited Joan's story in his intriguing, yet at times frustrating drama, The Maid of Orleans. And, there's the opera featured here -- Giuseppe Verdi's often-overlooked 1845 opera Giovanna d'Arco -- presented in a season-opening production from Milan's legendary opera house, La Scala.

Verdi's Giovanna d'Arco (Joan of Arc) has a long history in Milan. The opera's world premiere took place at La Scala in February of 1845. Verdi was in his early 30s at the time, and was surely Italy's most acclaimed young opera composer. Not long before, he had consecutive hits with Nabucco and I Lombardi -- both premiered at La Scala -- and Ernani, which premiered at La Fenice, in Venice. Both Nabucco and I Lombardi had librettos written by Temistocle Solera, who also wrote the libretto for Joan of Arc, making the collaboration one of the most successful artistic partnerships of Verdi's career.

Giovanna d'Arco was so popular that not long after the premiere, organ grinders were drawing crowds by playing tunes from the opera in the streets of Milan. By some reports, the gatherings were so big that police were called in for crowd control.

By now, the opera has been overshadowed a bit by Verdi's many great, later dranas, so Giovanna d'Arco may no longer rank as one of Verdi's most popular operas. Yet its title role is still among his finest creations. While writing it, Verdi may have had extra inspiration from the soprano who introduced the role, Erminia Frezzolini, who was among the finest singers of her time. So it's fitting that, in the production featured here, Joan of Arc is sung by one of the most acclaimed sopranos of our own time, Anna Netrebko.

Along with Netrebko, La Scala's opening night production also features tenor Francesco Meli as Carlo, and baritone Devid Cecconi as Joan's father Giacomo. The performance is led by conductor Riccardo Chailly, in his first appearance since becoming La Scala's new principal conductor.