There are times in opera when the theatre is effectively the show, as was the case last week in the Italian town of Parma: famous for its ham but also for a Verdi festival, which opened this year with a show in maybe the most stunning theatre-space I’ve ever seen.
Parma’s Teatro Farnese is a 17th-century amphitheatre, built in 1618 from wood but on a monumental scale for grand festivities to entertain the local dukes. These days it’s rarely used, except as a museum. But for the Verdi festival it housed a staging of Giovanna d’Arco that was both sensational and clever – produced by the British film director Peter Greenaway and his wife, Saskia Boddeke.
Giovanna is a piece of early Verdi that would be forgotten if it didn’t carry the composer’s name. Rehashing the story of Joan of Arc in terms of romantic entanglements that bear no resemblance to history, it makes punchy music but poor drama; and even Joan’s death, which happens in battle rather than at the stake, becomes a missed opportunity.
But the trick of this staging was to camouflage the limitations of the piece with a spectacle that managed to be grand without inflicting wear and tear on the Farnese’s Baroque fabric. Physical action was minimal and mostly symbolic. But packaged around the performers was the kind of hi-tech light show you’d find in a rock concert, with vast computer images projected in 3D on to the theatre’s surfaces.
Renaissance saints and Blessed Virgins alternated with a giant revolving crown apparently suspended in mid-air, along with collapsing buildings, dripping blood and newsreel footage of contemporary refugees (whose relevance was questionable, though they gave the show some edge).
The singers tended to get lost in all this visual energy, but young soprano Vittoria Yeo made an effective Joan. And the orchestra – something called I Virtuosi Italiani – lived up to its name with strong, assertive playing.
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