Joan of Arc in St Gallen

The big open-air opera production at the St Gallen Festival in 2022 was supposed to have been Orleanskaja dewa (The Maid of Orleans) by the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893).

But then, (as the general director of the St Gallen Theater explained it in the German opera magazine Das Opernglas, June 2002, page 54), “due to Russia’s ongoing war of aggression against the Ukraine, we had more and more doubts about this opera from day to day, not because we blame Tchaikovsky or Russian cultural workers for this terrible war, but because this specific opera by Tchaikovsky has a history of being used as a Soviet ‘victory opera’ after the Second World War.”

So they decided “at the last possible moment” not to perform Tchaikovsky’s opera after all, but instead to put on Giuseppe Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco, which tells the same story and is based on the same play, Die Jungfrau von Orleans (The Virgin of Orleans) by the German playwright Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805).

This last-possible-moment change of operas was widely criticized, and it meant that stage director Barbora Horáková had very little time to work out the staging, but perhaps she was able to use some of the ideas she had developed for Tchaikovsky and adapt them to the Verdi opera. In any case, I thought her staging was quite acceptable, given the circumstances.

Grandstand and stage in St Gallen

Giovanna d’Arco is not one of Verdi’s better operas, dramatically, which is why in Frankfurt it was performed only in a concert version in 2004. (I saw it then with Želiko Lučić as Giacomo, Peter Marsh as Delil and Magnus Baldvinsson as Talbot, with Paolo Carignani conducting.)

Verdi by Julian Budden

Verdi’s librettist, Temistocle Solera, claimed that his libretto for Giovanna d’Arco was “an entirely original drama” but one of Verdi’s biographers, Julian Budden, contends that it “is in fact an operatic distillation of Schiller’s Jungfrau von Orleans. Its heroine dies not at the stake but on the field of battle, having earlier been denounced not by the Church but by her own father. Solera pointed out that he had not followed Schiller and Shakespeare in making Joan ‘fall basely in love with the foreigner, Lionel.’ No indeed, since that would have added an extra principal to the cast and therefore have restricted the opera’s circulation. So Joan’s lover is Carlo, the Dauphin, if only for reasons of economy. The rest is according to Schiller.” (Budden, Verdi, pages 181-182.)

Verdi was in a great rush when he composed Giovanna d’Arco, so much so that he didn’t ask for any changes in the libretto, but just composed whatever Solera gave him.

At this stage of his career, Verdi was not yet a big fan of Schiller’s plays. That would come later, with I masnadieri (based on Schiller’s Die Räuber), with Luisa Miller (based on Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe) and especially with Don Carlos, one of Schiller’s better plays and one of Verdi’s outstanding operas.

Audience on the grandstand in St Gallen

The open-air opera performances of the St Gallen Festival take place in front of the Cathedral in the Klosterhof, the monastery courtyard. This festival has been held every summer since 2006 — except for 2020, when it had to be cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The St Gallen Festival is held early in the summer (June/July) to avoid conflicting with the Bregenz Festival, which is less than 40 km away.

Applause after Giovanna d’Arco in St Gallen

The orchestra at the St Gallen Festival no longer plays outdoors, but inside the theatre building several blocks away, and its music is wired over to the outdoor sound system. During the applause, when it was time for the soprano to fetch the orchestra conductor, he arrived just in time on an electric scooter.

Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

Back home, I re-read my favorite play about Joan of Arc, namely Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). Unlike Schiller, Verdi and Tchaikovsky, all of whom have Joan die heroically in battle (which she herself would no doubt have preferred), Shaw goes back to the historical facts of the matter and recognizes that she was tried for heresy, convicted and burned at the stake in 1431. He contends that she had a fair trial, by the standards of the time. She was not tortured, for example, to obtain a confession.

Twenty-five years after her death, another trial was held in which Joan was completely rehabilitated. While Shaw was satisfied with the result of this second trial, he said it was not nearly as fair and impartial as the first. Joan’s rehabilitation was very much in the interest of the French King Charles VII, who did not want to be known as someone who had been crowned by a heretic.

Shaw’s play appeared in 1923, three-and-a-half years after Joan was officially canonized as a Saint by the Catholic Church, to him illustrating the thin line between sainthood and heresy. He even discusses the (admittedly remote) possibility that the church might someday canonize Galileo Galilei, who was convicted of heresy in 1633 for asserting that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Comparing Joan and Galileo, Shaw points out (in his preface, page 40) that Joan “never doubted that the sun went round the earth; she had seen it do so too often.”

My photos and text in this post are from 2022.

For more on Joan of Arc, see my post From Jeanne d’Arc to Jeanne d’Oc
in Bordeaux, France.

For more on Galileo, see my post on the Birthplace of Bertolt Brecht
in Augsburg, Germany.

10 thoughts on “Joan of Arc in St Gallen”

  1. I don’t quite see the point.

    I guess it is because of how the Russians have used it, but not playing the opera doesn’t hurt the Russians in any way. It’s as if people are getting rid of anything connected with Russia whether it makes any sense or not. It’s like when my dad was in college (in the mid 20s after WWI). No one wanted to take German language classes because of the war.

  2. Every time I read a reference to Joan of Arc, I think of the statue of her in New Orleans (referred to locally as “Joanie on a Pony”. But your essay is far more interesting especially with the backstories.

    1. “Joanie on a Pony” is funny. In Birmingham, England, there is a monumental statue of a woman in a fountain, representing no doubt something very serious, but the locals call her ‘The Floozie in the Jacuzzi”.

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