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Francesco Foscari, by Lazzaro Bastiani [Source: Wikipedia]
19 Sep 2016

A rousing I due Foscari at the Concertgebouw

There is no reason why, given the right performers, second-tier Verdi can’t be a top-tier operatic experience, as was the case with this concert version of I Due Foscari.

A rousing I due Foscari at the Concertgebouw

A review by Jenny Camilleri

Above: Francesco Foscari, by Lazzaro Bastiani [Source: Wikipedia]


Verdi thought his 1844 opera about a fifteenth-century Venetian Doge torn between political expediency and filial love suffered from persistent gloom. Indeed, apart from a couple of reveler and gondolier choruses, doom and darkness dominate. However, the main shortcoming of the libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, who would collaborate with Verdi on those consummate dramas, Rigoletto and La traviata, is that it introduces the characters in the midst of their predicament and leaves them there until the tragic ending. At the start of the opera Jacopo Foscari is in prison, awaiting trial for the murder of Ermolao Donato, head of the Council of Ten. Donato had had him exiled for conspiring with enemy states. Francesco Foscari, the Doge, believes his son is innocent, but feels constrained to bend to the patricians’ will. Jacopo’s wife, Lucrezia Contarini, fervently and fruitlessly urges him to pardon his son. Jacopo is found guilty, but his execution is mitigated to renewed exile. The Doge’s hope is restored when Donato’s actual murderer confesses the crime on his deathbed, but he then hears that Jacopo has committed suicide on the way to Crete. Having lost the last of his children, the Doge also loses his power when the Council declares him too broken to continue ruling. His heart succumbs and he dies.

The music has a simple but effective transparency and offers several glimpses into Verdi’s future compositions. The Doge’s heartbreaking aria after his son’s sentencing is a precursor of Rigoletto’s anguish for his abducted daughter. A downcast clarinet solo representing Jacopo, here played with silken plangency by Arjan Woudenberg, ends in a trill that reappears in La traviata. Even removed from the context of the composer’s maturation, however, I due Foscari has plenty of merits. Verdi’s gift for translating psychological states into captivating melodies is very much in evidence. The vocal writing is firmly anchored in the first half of the nineteenth century, and conductor Giancarlo Andretta was ever mindful of its technical demands on the singers. He gave them expressive space while maintaining rhythmic tautness. His unfussy, eye-on-the-ball conducting served the music exceedingly well. The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic’s supple playing brought out the score’s ominous melancholy and its evocation of the Venetian waterscape, not least in Ellen Versney’s ravishing harp. Sobbing orchestral rubati intensified the pathos of the final scenes. Equally impressive, the Netherlands Radio Choir clearly differentiated their collective characters as they alternated between dour statesmanly mutterings and carefree barcarolles echoing on the lagoon.

The soloists all brought valuable qualities to this roaringly applauded performance. Verdi mostly uses the supporting cast in the concertato ensembles, yet they all made fine appearances, however brief. Soprano Aylin Sezer displayed a glowing timbre as Lucrezia’s confidante Pisana. Tenor Andrew Owens and bass Giovanni Battista Parodi as, respectively, senator Barbarigo and the Doge’s political rival Loredano, injected all the drama they could muster in their scenes, which are mostly of the “enter a messenger” type. In the Doge’s robes Sebastian Catana was richly sonorous and lyrically introspective. His is not a conventionally beautiful baritone, but it has a firm core and can envelope a concert hall. His Francesco was passive and homogenous of hue in the first two acts. One could argue that this suited a character hobbled by political impotence. Appropriately, Catana saved his most heart-rending singing-acting for Act III, when the Doge crumbles.

As his son Jacopo, Roberto De Biasio had no truck with such inward subtlety. And why should he? He was, after all, the tenor-hero in extremis. De Biasio had reliable high notes and was on sure ground when singing forte. At lower pitch and volume his voice was less responsive and lost power, sometimes disappearing altogether. His instinct for style and theatre, however, compensated for the limited flexibility. He went for broke emotionally and won the audience over, shaking the thunder sheet when Jacopo is beset by horrific hallucinations and singing a stirring farewell to his wife. Tamara Wilson had temperament and voice in spades for the impassioned Lucrezia. Apart from less than ideally defined trills and sustained high notes occasionally tapering into shrillness, Wilson’s performance was dazzlingly secure. As malleable as her soprano sounded in the cavatinas, she had even more control in the raging cabalettas, skimming gracefully op and down scales and firing full-voiced high B flats and pointed high Cs. Lucrezia is a two-mood character — she is either angry or miserable. Working within these limits, Wilson managed to add poignant shading to the grand gestures. Her interrogative diminuendo on the words “mio prence” (my prince) when greeting her freshly deposed father-in-law, for example, contained a world of compassion. It was a bravura performance with plenty of heart.

Jenny Camilleri

Cast and other performers:

Francesco Foscari: Sebastian Catana; Jacopo Foscari: Roberto De Biasio; Lucrezia Contarini: Tamara Wilson; Jacopo Loredano: Giovanni Battista Parodi; Barbarigo: Andrew Owens; Pisana: Aylin Sezer; Attendant on the Council of Ten: Mark Omvlee; Servant of the Doge: Lars Terray. Netherlands Radio Choir, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. Conductor: Giancarlo Andretta. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Saturday, 17th September 2016.

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