SARASOTA — A taste for the obscure is a useful trait for fans of Sarasota Opera. The company is up to No. 26 in its Verdi cycle (he composed 28 operas, several of which have multiple versions) with this year's staging of the little-known Giovanna d'Arco. Verdi's seventh opera, premiered in 1845, it tells the Joan of Arc story, but with an unexpected twist. In the libretto by Temistocle Solera, Giovanna (Joan) doesn't get burned at the stake.
Though the stage swarms with French and English soldiers and French citizens, the opera has just three principals: Carlo VII, the king of France (tenor Rafael Davila); Giovanna, the warrior maid (soprano Cristina Castaldi); and her father, Giacomo (baritone Marco Nistico).
There are also offstage choruses of angels and demons, representing the voices in Giovanna's head and heard only by her (and the audience). Their singing is sometimes accompanied by odd-sounding chords from a harmonium in the orchestra, conducted by artistic director Victor DeRenzi.
At Saturday's opening performance, Giovanna d'Arco felt more rhetorical than dramatic, and it took patience to get into the somewhat static flow of the work, but there are rewards to be found in its musical foreshadowing of later, greater Verdi. Giovanna is an interesting role for a diva with flair. Giacomo is in the tradition of the rich baritone roles in Macbeth, Rigoletto, La Traviata and Simon Boccanegra. The overture is catchy enough that it was featured in concerts by John Philip Sousa.
Because productions of Giovanna d'Arco are rare, it goes without saying that the Sarasota singers were all doing their roles for the first time, and that resulted in a conscientious sort of performance that erred on the side of caution. Castaldi seemed too stiff and formal, lacking the passion you'd like to see from one of history's great tragic figures. Her relatively small soprano made a faint impression in juxtaposition with the lusty choruses, though her voice warmed up as the night went on.
Davila bought an attractive, burnished tone to Carlo, but his singing suffered from a kind of note-perfect predictability, without the rough and ready edges that give a performance individuality and expressiveness. He and Castaldi had a shining scene with a love duet after the French have routed the English and Carlo wants Giovanna to crown him king.
Nistico gave an engaging performance as the father who accuses his daughter of witchcraft during Carlo's coronation. When Giacomo denounces Giovanna, the fickle French turn on their heroine as she, tormented by those voices in her head, declines to defend herself.
Logic is not the strong suit of Giovanna d'Arco, and director Martha Collins had to cope with an improbable finale. Somehow — it is never explained — Giovanna ends up in chains at an English fort, and again her father appears, this time to beg her forgiveness, having had a change of heart upon observing his daughter in ardent prayer. After a reconciliation duet, he frees her to rejoin the French, and she leads them in another victory. The divine maid is killed on the battlefield, but not before one last ensemble in which she, flanked by Giacomo and Carlo, strains upward to a heavenly chorus.
In the small role of English commander Talbot, Benjamin Gelfand gave an alert performance. Jeffrey Dean's traditional scenic design ranges from the dark wood paneling of a great hall to the rocky battlefield. Howard Tsvi Kaplan outfit the cast in heavy, earth-toned garb.
DeRenzi and Sarasota Opera are normally scrupulous in their Verdi scholarship, but the program book describes Giovanna d'Arco as an opera in four acts, while the score actually has it as a prologue and three acts. Perhaps it's a fine distinction, but to Verdi a prologue meant something different than an act.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.