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Giuseppe Verdi
16 Dec 2007

OONY Performs Verdi's I Due Foscari

After the triumph of his fifth opera, Ernani, Verdi could have gone on writing howling melodramas and made a mint.

Giuseppe Verdi: I Due Foscari

Opera Orchestra of New York, Carnegie Hall, 13 December 2007

Francesco Foscari: Paolo Gavanelli
Jacopo Foscari: Aquiles Machado
Lucrezia Contarini: Julianna Di Giacomo
Conducted by Eve Queler


But his sixth, I Due Foscari, indicates a new direction: inwards. Taken from a verse drama by Lord Byron, it’s a piece with little action in it. The three principals are not in opposition to each other – their antagonist is the ruthless machinery of the Venetian state; the opera concerns what goes on in their hearts, torn between love (of family, of country) and duty (to country, to unjust laws). Verdi did not yet have the musical chops to develop such internal conflicts, to create new layers for Italian opera – but that’s where he wanted to go, and in time, opera followed. Foscari, however, despite its wealth of melody, got kind of passed by. None of the tunes are well known and the leading roles are perilous – you need three big voices to pull the thing off.

In the history of Venice, a compleat oligarchy, the truly heroic figure is Venice. But human beings are drawn to individuals, and when stories come down to us from Venetian history, it is not state organs that elicit our sympathy. We sympathize with the oppressed, and with the conspirators who tried to disrupt the Venetian constitution – but Venice would not have become Venice if they had succeeded. Francesco Foscari, the longest-serving Doge of Venice (an almost powerless elected figurehead), after twice being refused permission to retire, was forced out of office against his will. He had also been forced to stand by when his son was wrongly accused of murder, tortured and exiled for it. That’s the story here: young Foscari complains (at the top of his tenor lungs), his wife resents (even louder), the old man bewails and, at last, drops dead.

Eve Queler chose Foscari (which she has presented a time or two before) for Opera Orchestra of New York’s one hundredth concert, and it was a joyful occasion on all counts. Venezuelan tenor Aquiles Machado, the accused Jacopo Foscari, is a Venezuelan tenor who has honorably sung such roles as Enzo at the Met. A little man with a big, brash voice of gleaming metal, he filled the room and made everyone smile, but there was little shading or subtlety. Jacopo should move us with his heartbreak not just his ardor.

He was very well matched by Julianna Di Giacomo as his wife, Lucrezia Contarini, one of Verdi’s hectic heroines, a dramatic coloratura like Abigaille in Nabucco or Odabella in Attila. (The Met’s producing Attila for the first time in a year or two, and they should keep her in mind.) Her voice, too, is huge and gleaming, and she has the coloratura, though the instrument is not ideally supported at the top. She had no troubles with strenuous Lucrezia, but she sang at only two levels, loud and louder, and there was little sign that she had other colors to her palette. Unless she learns how to characterize and how to manage soft singing, her future as a Norma, Anna Bolena or Verdi’s Hélène, the roles she seems to crave, is uncertain. Both these singers earned, and received, great enthusiasm.

The ovation of the evening, the performance that made people sigh as well as scream, was for Paolo Gavanelli’s Doge Francesco Foscari. His voice too is large, a rich, bluff smoky baritone with heart to it, and a sense of poetic phrasing. There were depths of feeling, of internal discussion, when he sang of his heartbreak, and we seemed to be an audience for that genuine discourse. It was easy to imagine him as Verdi’s other tormented baritone fathers, Rigoletto or Amonasro or Germont (which he has sung at the Met in years past), and everyone present would be eager to hear him in such roles.

As so often in Verdi, the baritone is the heart of this opera, and Queler chose the right man to make a case for the work. She did as well with the work’s thrilling, attention-grabbing prelude and several background choruses, though some of the orchestral work sounded a little scrappy. In any case, as at all the better Queler evenings, we came away with a better notion of the roots of the operatic canon, besides having made the acquaintance of several little-known singers we look forward to encountering again.

John Yohalem

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