Dark Shadows

Verdi’s I Due Foscari has its Los Angeles Opera premiere this month. DAVID LAWTON examines the complexities of Verdi’s rarely-produced early tragedy.

Dark Shadows hdl 1 912
The Last Interview of Jacopo Foscari, by Francesco Hayez (1791—1882), a leading Romantic artist in mid-nineteenth-century Milan
© Alfredo Dagli Orti/The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY 2012

Of all Verdi’s rarely performed early operas, the one that most deserves a serious revival is I Due Foscari. So it was welcome news when Los Angeles Opera announced plans to open its 2012­­–13 season this month with a production of the work, conducted by James Conlon and directed by Thaddeus Strassberger. A tale of intrigue in fifteenth-century Venice, I Due Foscari tells of an aged Doge, Francesco Foscari, whose son Jacopo, banished to Crete for a crime he didn’t commit, has now returned to Venice, his future to be determined by the fearsome Council of Ten, which promptly judges him a traitor. It is the kind of story Verdi relished — one of personal conflicts entangled with political ones. 

Los Angeles Opera boasts a strong cast — tenor Francesco Meli as Jacopo Foscari, soprano Marina Poplavskaya as Jacopo’s distraught wife, Lucrezia Contarini, and Plácido Domingo in the baritone role of Francesco Foscari. The last time an American company of comparable stature staged the opera was in September 1972, when Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its season with the much-admired Rome Opera production of 1968. Since then, in the U.S. at least, I Due Foscari has been heard primarily in concert performances, such as those in New York in 1975 at Town Hall and in 1981, 1992 and 2007 at Carnegie Hall, the latter three courtesy of Opera Orchestra of New York. 

During Verdi’s lifetime, I Due Foscari, his sixth opera, never enjoyed the popular success of Nabucco, I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata and Ernani, but it did circulate rapidly all over Italy in the year following its premiere at the Teatro Argentina in Rome on November 3, 1844. It was first seen in the U.S. in 1847, in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. It continued to enjoy a respectable number of productions in Italy and abroad during the late 1840s, ’50s and even into the ’60s, disappearing from the repertoire only in the 1870s, when interest in Verdi’s early operas had waned.

Although any early Verdi opera is difficult from a vocal standpoint, surely a much more pressing problem in the case of Foscari is the dramaturgical shortcomings of Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto.

Piave based his work on Byron’s five-act play The Two Foscari, An Historical Tragedy of 1821. Many critics who were Verdi’s contemporaries expressed grave reservations about this libretto. The distinguished Milanese composer and critic Alberto Mazzucato, in a lengthy review in the Gazzetta Musicale di Milano of the first La Scala production (August, 1845), praised Verdi’s music but savaged Piave’s libretto. To begin with, he ridiculed the fact that the audience is told seven times during the first two acts that Jacopo is sentenced to exile from Venice. Beyond that, he added, there are two even more serious defects:

First, to have neglected the part of Loredano, who, since he is the prime mover of all the misfortunes that strike the protagonists, should have dominated, but instead, he is almost unnoticeable. As a consequence of that, during the course of the whole drama you hear Foscari the father, Foscari the son and the wife of a Foscari lament, become enraged, imprecate — and that always against a force, an agent whom you almost don’t see, or know. Therefore the monotony of weeping: no contrast of passions: no life as a consequence of the action: a continuous lamentation, in short, a jeremiad. 

Second, the character of Lucrezia is useless. The entire drama could unfold equally well without her.

In his celebrated Studio sulle Opere di Giuseppe Verdi of 1859, Abramo Basevi lays the blame for the libretto’s deficiencies squarely at Byron’s doorstep:

In a letter to [John] Murray, [Byron] confesses that this tragedy of his is too simple, and therefore incapable of penetrating the soul of the spectators.... Without at all wishing to diminish Byron’s fame, it is legitimate to consider this tragedy as an average work, not equal to the author’s genius.

Modern commentators share Basevi’s reservations about Byron’s play, in which there is little dramatic action and virtually no character development. Although Verdi wrote to Piave on May 9, 1844, that he was drawn to its delicacy and pathos, he also realized that “it does not have the theatrical grandeur which one wants in an opera.” 

Yet the weaknesses of the libretto seem less significant when considered in the context of Verdi’s musical setting. He used the libretto’s monotony of incident and character imaginatively and found a special and consistent melancholy tone or tinta (color) for the music, which lends a sense of musical unity to the work as a whole. As Budden notes, he succeeded in capturing musically the very qualities of delicacy and pathos that had drawn him to the subject in the first place. 

Director Thaddeus Strassberger feels that Verdi’s setting makes a virtue of the libretto’s apparent defects. In a recent telephone interview, he observed, “The repetition of the themes and the unrelentingly cupa tinta of this opera are a welcome change of pace from the kinetic emotions of many other operas and offer us a bracing glimpse into the deep crevasses of the human soul.” Strassberger also addressed problems of comprehension posed by Piave’s extreme compression of the play’s five acts to three: “The upcoming coproduction will fill in some of the dramatic lacunae in order to allow the audience to better sympathize with the plight of the characters.” 

Strassberger offers a preview of how he plans to approach the show visually. “As the characters are based on real people in a specific time, we haven’t transposed the action to another era,” he says. “Mattie Ullrich has designed costumes that do not slavishly reproduce every period detail in period paintings but rather capture a sense of a prideful people armoring themselves against the decrepitude of their own souls. The scenery, designed by Kevin Knight, constantly shifts the attention to the emotional states of the characters in various situations of isolation and despair.” 

Nowhere is the redemptive power of Verdi’s music more evident than in Act II. One striking feature of I Due Foscari is that the composer cast almost all of the set pieces in unconventional forms, sometimes with solutions that he would revisit in subsequent operas. While the prison setting of the first scene is from Act III of Byron’s play, Jacopo’s hallucinatory vision of the ghost of Carmagnola is entirely Verdi and Piave’s invention. The eloquent prelude for solo viola and solo cello portrays Jacopo’s solitude and despair. (Verdi would return to the same instrumentation for the prison scene of his next Byron opera, Il Corsaro.) The dramatic accompanied recitative, in which Jacopo confronts the terrifying apparition, and the unconventional form of the aria that follows were features that Verdi would use to good effect again in Francesco’s dream in Act IV of I Masnadieri. Julian Budden notes that Jacopo’s final cadence and the orchestral postlude strikingly anticipate the end of Azucena’s racconto in Il Trovatore.

Lucrezia’s agitated identifying theme launches the duet as she enters, terrified that she will find her husband dead. The scene as a whole is cast in the normal grand duet form, with the important exception that Verdi omits the traditional first movement, the tempo d’attacco. Instead, he expands the opening scena to forge an effective link with the preceding number. As Lucrezia tries to revive her unconscious husband, she sings a soaring arioso phrase that distills the essence of her feelings. At first he mistakes her for the apparition, but when he recognizes her, they both sing a variant of the same phrase in octaves, accompanied by a string tremolo. After the slow movement, an offstage chorus and banda anticipate the barcarola that will begin the next act. The contrast between the carefree life of the Venetian gondoliers outside and Jacopo’s miserable confinement moves him to curse his enemies. The cabaletta, a prayer that he and Lucrezia will soon be united in suffering, is cast in the “similar” form, in which they sing the cabaletta theme singly, then together in octaves. This last time, Verdi provides a magical new accompaniment of high strings tremolo and harp, over pizzicato cellos.

The Doge’s entrance begins the trio, but without his identifying theme, the reflective character of which would be out of place. Here as well, Verdi omits one of the customary movements — the scena. Instead, the trio begins directly with the tempo d’attacco as a parlante, in which the voices alternate in free dialogue over orchestral themes. With respect to the tenor and soprano solos, the vocal writing in this slow movement anticipates, by way of the Lina–Stankar duet in Stiffelio, that of the quartet from Rigoletto. The Doge’s solo brings back the harp accompaniment from the preceding duet, a subtle musical connection. Loredano’s subsequent entrance in the tempo di mezzo turns the trio into a quartet for the cabaletta.

The finale — set in the hall of the Council of Ten — begins with a chorus in which the Council enters with its own identifying theme. At Jacopo’s entrance, the solo clarinet and strings play his plangent recurring theme. Jacopo begs his father for mercy in an arioso, but the latter feels bound to uphold the laws of the Council. Lucrezia bursts onto the scene with her children, an electrifying intrusion derived from Act I of the play, in which she breaks into the council chamber during her husband’s torture. Her action in the Act II finale launches the stirring concertato, in which the stage direction instructs, “Jacopo takes his children and has them kneel at the Doge’s feet.” For the first time, Verdi did not end his central finale with the conventional stretta. In I Due Foscari, the concertato leads without pause into a tempo di mezzo-like continuation, in which Loredano calls for Jacopo’s immediate departure. The curtain falls after a third statement of the climactic “groundswell” phrase from the concertato, now played fortississimo and in a faster tempo. 

In her 1999 biography Andrea Maffei e il Giovane Verdi, Marta Marri Tonelli has pointed out that in the conception of this moving scene, as well as that of the Doge’s abdication in the next act, Verdi and Piave were influenced by two paintings of Francesco Hayez on the same subjects, painted in 1838 and 1842 and exhibited at the Brera in Milan in 1844 while the libretto was in gestation. Both paintings humanize the Doge’s conflict between the responsibilities of his office and his family ties in a way that Byron does not. Verdi and Piave set the entire denouement in the Doge’s private quarters, as depicted by Hayez. Francesco learns from Barbarigo that his son was exonerated of the murder for which he had been wrongly accused, then from Lucrezia that Jacopo died during his departure. The Council of Ten demands Francesco’s resignation, and after giving up his Dogal insignia, he hears the bells of St. Mark’s proclaim the election of his successor and dies. By conflating four events that are widely separated in Byron, Piave maximizes the impact of the Doge’s defeat, and Verdi’s musical setting attains genuine tragic grandeur. spacer 

DAVID LAWTON is professor of music at Stony Brook University and an active freelance conductor in American regional opera companies. 

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