Première: Milan , Scala Theatre, February 15th, 1845.
Prologue. The year is 1429. Citizens and officials of Carlo VII, king of France, fear the worst in the war with England: Orléans is holding out, but barely. Carlo arrives: afflicted by the thought of how his people are suffering he plans to give himself up to the enemy: he has dreamt of a place in the middle of the forest where there is a painting of the Virgin Mary, and he has been ordered to lay his helmet and sword at the image's feet. The inhabitants of the area confirm the existence of the picture of his dream in a remote place in the forest full of demons and witches at night. Carlo does not believe that the site of a sacred image could be populated by damned souls: he will go himself to the place to ask help from the Virgin Mary.
In the forest in front of the chapel to the Virgin, Giacomo, Giovanna's father, is uneasy: his daughter spends many nights in that place and he fears she has given her soul to the Devil. He decides to hide in a cavern nearby to find out the truth.
Giovanna arrives, afflicted by the bad fortunes of France: she asks only to be able to face the enemy on the field of battle and prays the Virgin Mary to let her take up arms to defend her country. Her prayer finished, she falls asleep. Carlo arrives, surprised to recognise the holy place of his dream. But now it is Giovanna who dreams: first a chorus of evil spirits invite her to enjoy her youth and beauty; then a choir of blessed souls tell her that Heaven has answered her prayer and gives her the arms to save France, but she must keep her heart pure from all earthly love. Giovanna awakes and recognising the king, exhorts him not to give in to the enemy. She invites him to follow her to the battle field where she will lead him on to victory.
Giacomo, seeing the two talking together, is convinced that Giovanna, for love of the king, has given her soul to the Devil. He moves to stop her, but is struck to the ground in pain.
Act I. After a tremendous defeat inflicted by the French troops led by Giovanna, the English soldiers beg their commander Talbot to order the retreat. Giacomo arrives at the camp almost crazed with sorrow: he has come to accuse his daughter and asks to fight against her and Carlo who has seduced her. He promises that before nightfall he will consign Giovanna to the English for a just punishment for her impiety.
Her mission over, Giovanna longs for her home and gets ready to leave, but Carlo detains her, confessing his love for her. Giovanna is moved, and though she at first resists, ends up admitting that she, too, loves him. But the voices from heaven remind her of her destiny: she must give up all earthly love. Carlo has not heard the voices and is surprised that she is suddenly perturbed and trembling. Just then, an official comes in inviting them to come and accept the homage of the people. Carlo will be crowned and he wishes it to be Giovanna who poses the crown on his head and shares the glory with him. No longer fully in control of herself, she follows passively, full of remorse and guilt. A chorus of malign spirits praising Satan and his victory over purity assail the poor young girl.
Act II. The festive population prepares for the coronation singing the praises of the valorous warrior virgin. The procession accompanying Carlo and Giovanna enters the Cathedral of St. Denis for the sacred rite. Outside, Giacomo is waiting; forgetting his paternal love and by now a pure instrument of divine will, he is ready to accuse Giovanna. As the procession leaves the cathedral, Giacomo sees in Giovanna's troubled face the confirmation of his suspicions: furiously, he throws himself on her, accusing her of impiety before king and people. Despite Carlo's entreaties to defend herself, Giovanna does not answer and gives up any hope of saving herself. Sudden thunder and lightening seem to confirm Giacomo's accusations: the crowd, terrorised, already consider Giovanna a witch. The girl, in tears, throws herself into her father's arms, who offers her the flame of the stake as the only way of saving her soul. Carlo despairs of being able to help her while the people, already forgetting Giovanna's feats, deny the impious girl who has contaminated the glory of France.
Act III. Giovanna, in chains, awaits her fate at the stake. She hears the sounds of the battle that is raging, and inspired by Heaven, can see what is happening. Giacomo comes in, unseen, to observe his daughter's behaviour. Giovanna sees Carlo surrounded by the English who are about to defeat him. She prays to God not to abandon her and gives her heart to Him: she did love, it is true, but only for an instant, remaining pure. Giacomo, hearing her prayer, realises he has accused her unjustly and rushes in to liberate her. Giovanna asks her father to bless her, takes up her sword, and hurries to the battle field. Giacomo from the top of a tower sees her on a white horse save the king and guide the French army to victory.
Carlo arrives at the tower, sent by Giovanna to defend her father; soon the news arrives that the English are in retreat but that Giovanna is dead.
Carlo and Giacomo are overcome with sorrow, when a funeral procession arrives bring the body of the virgin. Suddenly Giovanna opens her eyes and, as though moved by a supernatural force, rises up and takes from Carlo's hands the French insignia, giving her adieus to the earth and mortal glory. She expires, and an astral light shines down from heaven among the exultations of the blessed and the torments of the damned.
Seventh of Verdi's operas and the fifth composed for the Scala in Milan, with a libretto by Temistocle Solera che who put to verse a play by Friedrich Schiller, it was an authentic flop, so much so that Verdi stayed away from the Milan theatre until 1881, the year of Simon Boccanegra.