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One of the most eagerly-awaited of all opera seasons is that of La Scala, Milan, which ‘season’ opens every year on December 7th ; this year the chosen opera is Verdi’s “Giovanna d’Arco”. La Scala is one of the most famous opera houses in the world. It opened on August 3rd, 1778, on the site of the church of Santa Maria alla Scala, from which it took its name. The opera on the opening night was by that great composer whose operas eclipsed those of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – the celebrated Antonio Salieri. It was rated a phenomenal success and it was called “Europa Riconosciuta”! Many of the greatest operas have premiered at La Scala and for many singers success at La Scala means they have ‘arrived’.

Giovanna Darco

“Giovanna d’Arco”, Verdi’s 7th opera, premiered at La Scala on February 15th, 1845. It was based loosely on a play, ‘The Maid of Orleans’, by Friedrich von Schiller. It was a tremendous success and for a time was among its composer’s most popular operas (it was given a creditable 17 performances); today, however it has fallen into neglect, being rarely performed. It was recorded in 2013 with a cast including Anna Netrebko and Placido Domingo. ‘Giovanna’ is, of course, Joan of Arc, and the opera tells the story of her collaboration with King Charles V11 of France to defeat the English. Here, she dies in battle and not, as historically, at the stake.  

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‘Giovanna’ was performed to quite an amount of acclaim at the Buxton Festival in England in 2015, being described as “electrifying in places”. It has a fine role for the baritone, Giovanna’s father. It’s not now considered to be among Verdi’s best operas, but it has some fine music. Of course, the big attraction of our La Scala production is the wonderful Anna Netrebko, one of today’s greatest singers. I’ve seen her quite a number of times, both in the opera house and Live on screen – her ‘Lucia’ I found particularly memorable. Francesco Meli is also a fine singer and with Richard Chailly at the podium it should give us a good evening’s music. What a great opportunity to see a rarely-performed opera from the home of opera.

Teatro alla scala

Three days after ‘Giovanna’, on December 10th, we have, from Covent Garden, one of the most thrilling evenings of opera in the whole repertoire – Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” –  long affectionately known as ‘Cav’ and ‘Pag’. These operas are the epitome of ‘Verismo’ opera; we get full-blooded, true-to life characters where ‘the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’ (W B Yeats) is exposed in all its ferocity. There are no King or Queens, Counts or Countesses but real life, everyday characters.

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These operas’ histories have been almost inseparable since the beginning –‘Cav’ premiered in Rome in 1990, ‘Pag’ in Milan in 1892 and New York’s Met, realising that this was a coupling made in heaven, performed them together in December 1893. They have been almost inseparable in performance ever since. There’s hardly a famous singer of the twentieth century capable of singing lead roles  in either of these operas who didn’t grab the opportunity to do so; John MacCormack sang Turiddu in’Cav’ in 1907, when he was only twenty-three and Caruso’s recording of ‘On With the Motley’ from ‘Pagliacci’ was the first to sell a million copies.

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 From Covent Garden, we very strong casts of more or less the same singers for both operas, conducted by the wonderful Antonio Pappano, an Italian who has a great empathy with these most Italian of operas. In Eva-Maria Westbroek and Aleksandrs Antonenko he has a tenor and a soprano who should give us a thrilling evening of ‘heart on sleeve’ music. Since both operas have much beautiful music, both instrumental and vocal, to complement the fireworks, I expect this to be a memorable evening.

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[Fogra: Now that we’ve come back to earth after Judi Dench’s magical performance in ‘The Winter’s Tale’ (I couldn’t help thinking that even at eighty, and with the help of a little make-up, she still has the inner fire to play Lady Macbeth), we can see ‘Jane Eyre’ Live from ‘The National’ December 8th. Also, Berlioz’ opera ‘The Damnation of Faust’ Live from Paris on December 17th – Berlioz is perhaps one of the most underrated of all composers. This should also be very enjoyable.]

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