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Marina Poplavskaya as Lucrezia Contarini and Francesco Meli as Jacopo Foscari [Photo by Robert Millard courtesy of LA Opera]
10 Oct 2012

I Due Foscari, LA Opera

Lucky Angeleno opera lovers! In anticipation of the Giuseppe Verdi’s bicentennial (it will occur in 2013) Los Angeles Opera treated its patrons to a unique and musically thrilling performance of I Due Foscari, the sixth of the composer’s twenty-six operas.

I Due Foscari, LA Opera

A review by Estelle Gilson

Above: Marina Poplavskaya as Lucrezia Contarini and Francesco Meli as Jacopo Foscari

Photos by Robert Millard courtesy of LA Opera

 

The production, the first new major American mounting of the work in forty years, was created in collaboration with the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia, the Theater an der Wien, and London’s Covent Garden, in all of which it will eventually be performed. Still, few opera goers anywhere in the world are likely to see the work. Of the more than 3362 performances of Verdi operas thus far scheduled internationally in 2012 and 2013 - there will be only fourteen (14) of I Due Foscari.

The two Foscari of the title were 15th century historical figures: Francesco Foscari, the octogenarian Doge of Venice, which the opera company’s General Director, the now baritonal Plácido Domingo performed; and Francesco’s son, Jacopo, here undertaken by Italian tenor Francesco Meli, in his debut with the company. The other major role in the work, that of Lucrezia, Jacopo’s’ wife, was sung by the Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya. There is also a villain. His name is Loredano, and he doesn’t have much to say (or to sing) in this work. More unfortunately (in dramatic terms) he doesn’t appear until the second act.

Verdi was thirty-three and had recently completed Ernani when Rome’s Teatro Argentina invited him to prepare a new opera for their forthcoming season. He was given about four months to choose a subject, write a libretto, compose the music, cast and rehearse the work, and conduct it. When his first proposed subject, Lorenzino di Medici, (not Lorenzo — this L. Medici was no pillar of renaissance culture) was rejected by papal censors, Verdi turned to The Two Foscari, an historical play by Lord George Byron, which he and his librettist Francesco Piave had previously considered.

I Due Foscari begins in medias res. Tragedy upon tragedy has already struck the royal family before the curtain rises. Francesco Foscari, who has been in power for thirty-four years has lost two of three sons. Loredano believes that Francesco was responsible for the death of his father and uncle, and is plotting against him. Francesco’s only surviving son, Jacopo, a man given to luxury, comfort and risk-taking, has been convicted of a variety of crimes — among them a murder he didn’t commit - and has been sentenced to exile. Nevertheless, it is Jacopo we encounter in Venice when the curtain rises. He has been brought back in chains from exile to be tried again for treason, this time for writing to an enemy of the Venetian State. Jacopo claims that he wrote the letter intending that it be intercepted just so that he would be returned to his beloved Venice. Jacopo, we learn, would rather die in Venice than live anyplace else. The Doge is powerless to protect his son, since Venice has fallen under the rule of I Dieci (the council of ten) led by Loredano, with essentially inquisitorial powers. As the opera proceeds, the three major characters, bemoan their fate and alternately plead with God and each other to do something to save Jacopo. To no avail. Jacopo is convicted and once more sentenced to exile. He dies almost as soon as he boards the ship. Subsequently word arrives that some one has confessed to the murder of which Jacopo had been accused, but the inconsolable Doge is further humbled when Loredano and the council demand that he abdicate his throne. He does so after brief resistance. Then, as bells announce the election of a new Doge, the stricken Francesco Foscari dies.

FCI8164.gifIevgen Orlov as Loredano and Placido Domingo as Francesco Foscari

The libretto of I Due Foscari, like its English counterpart, is melancholy and uneventful. British critics found Jacopo’s devotion to Venice unbelievable, and Piave did nothing to alter that. There is no dramatic action in the libretto. There is no character development. Francesco and Jacopo essentially lament and plea. Lucrezia laments and berates. Miraculously, Verdi, who constantly egged Piave on to provide him lyrical emotional poetry, knew how to charge even lamentations and pleas with fervor and energy — witness the power of Francesco, Jacopo’s and Lucrezia’a Act II trio. Music and voices provide the thrills in this opera. Written just after Ernani, Verdi here begins the compositional progression that will take him and all of Italian opera from the static belcanto style and forms of his immediate predecessors — Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti — to the lyric, rhythmic and dramatic freedoms which culminated in his masterful Falstaff toward the end of the 19th century. Beginning with I Due Foscari, patterns emerge: keys signatures, melodic and rhythmic devices, which Verdi will elaborate in future works. The “oom pah pah” opera orchestra is on its way out. Already in I Due Foscari, the orchestra does more than merely provide back up for the vocal line. It begins to partake in the story telling. I find it intriguing that on seeing and hearing I Due Foscari, a present day operaphile knows more about what Verdi would write in the future than the composer, himself, did, at the time.

As Jacopo Foscari, Francesco Meli brought a warm voice, rich in color and with squillo to spare, to the role. Marina Poplavskaya’s large, clearly produced soprano filled the house, but lacked pliancy and a sense of ease in Lucrezia’s coloratura. Plácido Domingo was, and remains an extraordinary singer. True, his voice today lacks the heft and dark color that a young baritone could bring to the role of Francesco, but Domingo offers unmatched vocal control, experience, and acting ability. His death scene was particularly affecting. The sonorous voiced Ukrainian bass, Ievgen Orlov in the role of Loredano, represented evil so well that he was booed at his curtain call (which tells you something about the two dimensional aspect of this opera — think Iago!). Tenor, Ben Bliss, was his impressive sidekick, Barberigo. This is an opera of lamentations — beautiful, melodic, even exciting lamentations. Maestro James Conlon made it all work, with a crisp, bright, and suitably modern interpretation, which never allowed the pace to falter.

Appropriately dark and restrained visuals for the work were provided by director Thaddeus Strassberger, set designer Kevin Knight and costume designer Mattie Ulrich. In contrast to Lucrezia’s and the Doge’s gleaming robes, the red cassocked “Dieci” and black clad chorus spoke of evil men and secret powers. Verdi’s interpolated Festa — complete with dancers, gondolieri and a fire eater was both a musical and visual respite and delight. I have no idea why Jacopo’s prison cell was made to sway on its way down from the rafters, and no idea why director Strassberger had Lucrezia drown her son in a handy trough in the Doge’s bedroom at the last moment. It distracts from the unity of the work. Both Verdi and Byron leave us with Loredano, who theoretically set the plot in motion, to gloat in revenge over the body of the Doge, as the curtain comes down.

I Due Foscari is a confused and poorly constructed story at best, but then again, it’s opera. It’s Verdi opera, and lucky Angelenos applauded their exciting and extraordinary treat vociferously.

Estelle Gilson


Production:

Jacobo Loredano: Ievgen Orlov; Jacopo Foscari: Francesco Meli; Lucrezia Contarini: Marina Poplavskaya; Francesco Foscari: Plácido Domingo. Orchestra and chorus of the Los Angeles Opera. Conductor: James Conlon Director: Thaddeus Strassberger Set Designer: Kevin Knight Costume Designer: Mattie Ullrich Lighting Designer: Bruno Poet Chorus Director: Grant Gershon.

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