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A Heroine for Two: Giovanna d'Arco between Verdi and Tchaikovsky


We are not going to offer you the usual article dissecting the relationship between Opera and History, explaining how much historical truth there is in the performances we love so much, but we are going to attempt to make a comparison between two operas that deal with the same topic: "Giovanna d'Arco" Giuseppe Verdi and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's "La Pulzella d'Orleans." We would like to start by refreshing your memory about who Giovanna of Arc was.

Who was Giovanna d'Arco?

We are sure that all of you have heard of Giovanna of Arc, known as the Maid of Orleans, at least once; however, we will tell you something about this very charismatic figure and the origin of her myth that is still being revived today. Giovanna was born in 1412, in the midst of the Hundred Years' War, in a small French village, and of her life before her meeting with the king we know practically nothing; the only absolutely relevant event is the fact that at the age of 13 she began to hear "heavenly voices" accompanied by visions of angels and saints. Four years later the young woman headed to the castle of Chinon to meet King Charles of Valois and offer him her services as God's messenger: after careful examination she was allowed to join the army. From 1429 until her capture Giovanna witnessed and participated in several battles, the most famous and relevant of which was the siege of the city of Orleans, which marked the beginning of the recovery of the French and during which her role turns out to be instrumental in refreshing the transalpine spirit. In May of the following year, however, Giovanna was captured and sold to the English; she was subjected to a lengthy trial that saw her condemned and burned at the stake on May 30, 1431. But already a few years later her reputation was rehabilitated, her story became legend, and if her myth was continually nurtured, it was in the 19th and 20th centuries that it found its greatest expression: with a leap in time we find ourselves in 1801, when the playwright Friedrich Schiller composed the tragedy "Die Jungfrau von Orleans," (The Maid of Orleans), a work that inspired the two plays we are going to confornate. Under Napoleon Bonaparte, Giovanna became the symbol not only of patriotism but also of French nationalism. During Romanticism, Giovanna came back into vogue along with the Middle Ages; patriot or inspired maiden, everyone wanted to appropriate her figure, republicans and monarchists, laity and clergy. By the beginning of the 20th century, during Giovanna's beatification process, her fame had again spread among all strata of the population both through the Church's initiative and the painstaking reconstruction of her life. However, politics and society appropriated her figure by favoring a single aspect and leaving out others, following their own needs. On the one hand, Giovanna became the emblem of Catholics; on the other, the secular left celebrated her image as a girl of the people abandoned by power and the king at the stake of the Church. Opera music could not help but be fascinated by this figure.

The two works compared

The two plays differ in several respects in their rendering of Giovanna and her story. At the basis of both we find Schiller's drama, which I mentioned above, which leaves a lot of room for Giovanna's interiority, while the historical relevance, on the other hand, remains very questionable. In Schiller, Verdi and Tchaikovsky, the same dynamics are presented: our heroine is in love and reciprocated but her mission leaves no room for romantic feeling, it is her father who accuses her of being a witch, and she always dies tragically. It must be remembered, however, that Giovanna was never accused by her father, and as for her possible love affairs, we know nothing about them; she certainly died tragically. And it is in death that we encounter big differences between the three dramas: in Schiller, Giovanna dies, like a good romantic heroine, on the battlefield; in Verdi she meets the same end but for different reasons, as she throws herself into the fray to save her beloved king; while in Tchaikovsky we find a "historical" death as the Maid expires burned at the stake. In all these works, more emphasis is placed on the "human" side of Giovanna who, very young, renounces love for the greater good in order to fulfill her mission. Undoubtedly this is a distorted reading to make the Maid the perfect heroine, for the Romantics, but we should not be surprised by this since Giovanna underwent several reinterpretations, as we have seen. So, does Romanticism and opera have any merit towards Giovanna d'Arco? They certainly allowed her story to spread, to be known even by the general public, certainly in a reinterpreted way. We must take note, however, that this twisting was the humus, in which the interest in the mythical Giovanna grew and consequently the desire to trace historical information about how things had actually gone. In short, we can say that these two nineteenth-century cultural actors were instrumental in giving a boost to studies on Giovanna of Arc.

"Every man gives his life for what he believes in. Every woman gives her life for what she believes in. People often believe in little or nothing and yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. A life is all we have and we live as we believe we live it. And then it is over. But to sacrifice what you are and live without believing, that is more terrible than death."

Giovanna d'Arco


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In ottemperanza alla legge 124/2017 commi da 125 a 129, la società ha ricevuto i contributi relativi agli aiuti di Stato, come pubblicizzato nella Nota integrativa.