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I Due Foscari
Los Angeles Opera
LAO’s Due Foscari, with Domingo and Poplavskaya as Francesco and Lucrezia
© Robert Millard 2012
Los Angeles Opera's new production of I Due Foscari (seen Sept. 20) offered proof — if proof were ever needed — that excursions into the lesser-known works of the Verdi canon can excite rather than discourage audiences. It is likely that only a handful of the audience that packed the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion had seen a performance of Verdi's sixth opera previously, yet the uproarious enthusiasm with which this Due Foscari was received exceeded the perfunctory applause that is often accorded the warhorses of the repertoire. There is no surprise in this: even those of us who were unfamiliar with Foscari itself were familiar with its idiom. We rejoiced anew in the multi-tiered harmonies of Verdi's mighty ensembles, in the furious cabalettas of his incensed characters, in the sweeping melody, and in those moments when we glimpse the possibility of a more serene world than the one we live in. But above all, this production of I Due Foscari reminded us of the raw power that makes opera such a vital force.
It helped that the cast, under James Conlon's baton, was headed by three world-class singers in magnificent form. Plácido Domingo was undertaking his 140th role as the doom-laden Francesco Foscari, the Venetian Doge, who, due to political intrigue, loses his son, then his throne and his life; Francesco Meli sang his much tortured son, Jacopo, who dies as he is exiled from Venice; and Marina Poplavskaya was the doge's daughter-in-law, Lucrezia.
Initially it seemed that Poplavskaya would carry off the laurels for the night. From the moment she entered, she was a volcano of blistering fury, scouring the depths of her voice to breathtaking effect — particularly when she half-spoke or even barked the most poisonous of Lucrezia's fulminations against Francesco Foscari's helplessness and the cruel venality of Venetian politics. One could only wonder that Venice, faced with such titanic anger, did not sink into the waves!
But Poplavskaya had to share the glory with her colleagues, first among them Domingo, whose durability is one of the wonders of the operatic world. This is the tenor's fifty-second year singing opera, and yet — as this performance demonstrated — he can match singers less than half his age decibel for decibel and show no sign of strain, thinness of tone or hoarseness in the voice. The baritonal range of Francesco — a role that has been sung by Giangiacomo Guelfi, Leo Nucci, Renato Bruson and Piero Cappuccilli — seems to suit the current state of Domingo's voice, though there were a few uncertain notes at the bottom, and he sang Act I with restraint. But he delivered his Act III aria to the Council of Ten, "Questa dunque è l'iniqua mercede," with such power and fullness that it sounded less like a plea for mercy than a demand for dignity and respect. Indeed, Domingo sang with such might that the finale, which can easily be weakened by defeatism in Foscari, acquired a power that anticipated the great endings of Verdi's mature operas.
The Jacopo offered by Meli, a newcomer to Los Angeles Opera, was not the weepy creature he can easily become, both in Verdi's opera and in the Byron play on which it is based, but a strong, volatile man, driven to extremes of pain, both physical and mental. The production offered Meli quite a challenge, as he had to sing his first aria suspended in a cage a good twelve feet above the stage and his last aria also in a cage, though this time on a cart. The contrast between his physical constriction and his generously proportioned spinto tenor provided a haunting image of imprisonment.
Unfortunately, the role of Loredano, the villain of the piece, is woefully underwritten, which prevented us from enjoying at length Ievgen Orlov's richly tenebrous bass.
In the pit, Conlon made sure that Verdi's score would be heard to maximum effect. Climaxes were delivered with a volume that was close to ear-splitting, while lyrical passages, especially those involving the woodwinds (the clarinet in particular), were played lingeringly, so as to extract the fullest pathos from them. Above all, the noble melodies that are unique to Verdi were all heard in their fullest splendor. Meanwhile, Grant Gershon's chorus, which is going from strength to strength, sang with intimidating force.
Thaddeus Strassberger's production made no attempt to create the ambience of Renaissance Venice. This was not a society approaching the zenith of its power but a dingy, dilapidated seaport city: Kevin Knight's bleak set was constructed mainly of scaffolding and dirty canvas. Instruments of torture and images of religious and political oppression abounded. This was apt and effective, though it in part gainsaid the action and the music. The production embraced the opera's raw power but provided little opportunity to explore the more intimate, domestic aspects of the score that are such a novel feature of I Due Foscari. One could not help speculating that if some attempt had been made to represent the serenity of Venice, the exposé of the cruelty upon which that serenity had been built would have been that much more effective. As it was, Strassberger seemed determined to avoid any staging that was aesthetically pleasing. By the time we reached the final scene, set incongruously in Foscari's bedchamber, it seemed to be the production, rather than the city it was depicting, that was coming apart. Mattie Ulrich's costumes were most effective in creating an aura of dreary uniformity in a tyrannous world, though it was difficult to see why Lucrezia had to appear in a different costume in every scene. Bruno Poet's lighting effectively highlighted the drama and made it visible in the all-encompassing gloom.
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