Verdi vs. the Fanatics

tags: opera



Garry Wills is Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern. His study of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. His latest book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, was published in February 2013.

Like all of Verdi’s early operas, the seventh one, Giovanna d’Arco (Joan of Arc) (1845), has been revived and given multiple recordings in recent years. In this bicentennial year of Verdi’s birth, it has been performed in Salzburg with Placido Domingo in one of his new baritone roles as Giovanna’s father. On September 21, the Chicago Opera Theater presented what it billed as the first performance from the new scholarly edition in the great University of Chicago Verdi series, this one edited by Alberto Rizzuti. In recent decades, this once-popular opera has been newly appreciated.

Yet there is no denying that the work tugs against some of a modern audience’s values. When, for instance, Giovanna is accused of witchcraft, she is unable to deny it because she has fallen in love with the Dauphin she is striving to make King. Why does she feel that a love for an unmarried Christian man, one not even sexually satisfied, must paralyze her with guilt?

Schiller’s play, Die Jungfrau von Orleans (1801), which gave Temistocle Solera, Verdi’s librettist, much of his material, is more convincing on this point. Schiller’s Johanna falls in love with a soldier in the English army she is fighting. This adds an element of betrayal to her country, and explains her guilt. His Johanna purifies herself from this lapse into love for the enemy and goes on to die fighting for her cause....



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