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I Due Foscari

Royal Opera House

IN Review Due Foscari London lg 1115
Domingo and Meli in I Due Foscari at ROH
© Catherine Ashmore/Royal Opera 2015

All opening nights, particularly of a new production, have pre-performance buzz, but on this occasion the sense of anticipatory excitement in the full Royal Opera House auditorium was especially high. The reason, undoubtedly, was the return to Covent Garden of an operatic legend, tenor (and now sometime baritone) Plácido Domingo, in Verdi’s Due Foscari. The seemingly superhuman singer, who made his Royal Opera debut as Cavaradossi in 1971, is now seventy-three. Although he shows no sign of slowing down — he takes on other new baritone roles this season, including Don Carlo in Ernani at the Metropolitan Opera — all good things must come to an end, and operagoers are keen to catch him while they still can. Surely few other factors would be persuasive enough to pack a house for relatively unknown early Verdi.

The star attraction certainly did not disappoint his admirers. Domingo’s role in I Due Foscari is the tragic figure of Francesco Foscari, fifteenth-century Doge of Venice, whose dogged determination to adhere to the law blinds him to human justice. Nominally the most powerful man in the land, he is powerless to prevent the unjust punishment of his own son for false accusations of murder. The role suits Domingo well. The strength of his voice may be a little diminished now, but it still has a brilliance and clarity that most singers would kill for. His presence, too, is formidable, and his acting is superbly nuanced. Proudly defiant when his rival Loredano (splendidly sung by Italian bass Maurizio Muraro) informs him that the Council has decided he should resign the Dogeship, he made his final, grief-stricken moments spellbinding. 

Phenomenonal as he is, however, Domingo did not steal this strongly cast show. It must take special courage for any tenor to sing the lead role opposite one of the greatest tenors of all time, yet Francesco Meli seemed completely undaunted. His bold, fluent, well-rounded tones rang out magnificently in the role of Foscari’s doomed son Jacopo, and he was well matched by Maria Agresta, in fine voice as Jacopo’s wife. Meli could learn something from Domingo in terms of stagecraft — although, to give Meli the benefit of the doubt, his rather stilted performance may have been due in part to Thaddeus Strassberger’s lackluster direction.

Strassberger’s default mode of slow, ponderous processing and static emoting may be calculated to convey the portentousness of Venice’s rulers, but too often it simply feels creaky and old-fashioned. Visually, the production (first seen at Los Angeles Opera in 2012) is impressive. Set designer Kevin Knight’s dark, decrepit Venice, strewn with piles of rubble, serves as a physical manifestation of the brutal and outmoded powers that control it, and Mattie Ullrich’s austere costumes — crimson-robed elders contrasted with the black-clad Giunta and floating white nuns — are striking. Bruno Poet’s lighting is atmospheric, transforming Jacopo’s prison cell into a vision of Hades. 

Conductor Antonio Pappano proved himself once again to be an instinctive Verdian, drawing terrific playing from the ROH orchestra. The tempestuous heavy brass theme that opens the opera crackled with intensity; the two solo cellos that introduce the prison scene were beautifully mournful. Risorgimento tunes swaggered, and emotion seemed heartfelt. Pappano made a compelling case for a score that may not be among Verdi’s greatest, but which — perhaps inspired by the heartbreaking historical tale, for once relatively unadorned with nineteenth-century Romanticism — has plenty of engrossing music. spacer 


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