Domingo Charms Again in LA – Verdi’s I Due Foscari

“Miraculous”… “Remarkable”… “Incomparable.”

Such superlatives can’t begin to describe the stellar career of Plácido Domingo, which encompasses over three thousand-six hundred performances, three films and nine Grammy awards. How fitting, then, to celebrate the forty-fifth anniversary of his Los Angeles Opera debut, as well as his one hundred-fortieth operatic role, with L.A. Opera’s freshly conceived production of The Two Foscari, Verdi’s rarely performed sixth opera that has not seen a major fully staged U.S. production in forty years.

As a violinist at the Metropolitan Opera for twenty-one seasons, I was blessed with the opportunity to witness more than my share of Mr. Domingo’s unprecedented output of roles. Though admittedly more accustomed to his artistry as a tenor, I embrace his move toward roles that lie in what he calls the middle of his voice. Whatever his vocal range, I feel especially privileged to have experienced this masterful portrayal of his newest role: Francesco Foscari, the Venetian head of state struggling to preserve his family name and fend off his scheming political enemies while protecting his son Jacopo from the cruel realities of a political climate that defines the term Machiavellian.

Oberto, Verdi’s first opera from 1840, established him as a contender for leading opera composer of his day. Sadly his next work, Un Giorno di Regno, was more like the “throwaway draft” of a screenplay. Composed under the pall of his wife’s recent death, the opera failed miserably. But with the success of Nabucco, followed by I Lombardi Della Prima Crociata and Ernani, Verdi’s impressive compositional skills began to blossom fully, foreshadowing his potential as an operatic force of nature. The dynamic, energetic Foscari, which came on the heels of these early 1840s successes, continued to cement Verdi’s reputation as a composer with a great future, though I suspect few would have imagined the ultimate breadth of his phenomenally productive career over the next five decades and its far-reaching influence on the opera world.

In Foscari Verdi collaborated with librettist Francesco Maria Piave, a Venetian well versed in the art of creating beautiful language for operas. Verdi thought Lord Byron’s controversial historical play The Two Foscari “a fine subject, delicate and full of pathos.” Astonishingly, the Pope’s stringent censors found nothing objectionable in Piave’s libretto, and the scenario remained intact. But the Republic of Venice vetoed the opera for its unfavorable depiction of Venetian nobility and nixed the Teatro Fenice premiere. The Teatro Argentina in Rome stepped in to commission the work, and it debuted there in 1844.

Marina Poplavskaya as Lucrezia Contarini and Francesco Meli as Jacopo Foscari (Photo: Robert Millard)
Marina Poplavskaya as Lucrezia Contarini and Francesco Meli as Jacopo Foscari (Photo: Robert Millard)

Verdi was under a great deal of pressure to deliver a success at the theater in which Donizetti and Rossini had triumphed. The premiere was not an unqualified smash, but by the second performance the critics warmed up to the work, and ultimately Verdi received just recognition from the City of Rome for his efforts.

Based on the true story of the longest-reigning (1423-57) Venetian doge in the city’s history, whose statue can be found at the entrance of the Doge’s Palace, Foscari chronicles a series of misapprehensions, machinations and twists that would test the resolve of the most astute, thick-skinned politician. In this La Gioconda meets The Borgias plot and milieu,Foscari the Elder falls victim to the most egregious forms of doctrinal brutality imaginable and, in a final ironic twist of fate, loses the one person he holds most dear: his beloved son.

The melodic beauty and dynamism of Verdi’s score validate Domingo’s reasons to champion Verdi’s early works, and his performance lived up to expectations. The power of his still glorious voice, coupled with a Shakespearean dramatic intensity, combined to create a personage and vocal presence worthy of the composer’s upcoming two hundredth birthday celebration next year.

Tenor Francesco Meli, in his local debut as Jacopo, and soprano Marina Poplavskaya (memorable in La Traviata here in 2009) as his long-suffering wife Lucrezia, proved up to the task of supporting Domingo’s profoundly moving portrayal. Meli was persuasive as a character somewhat lacking in intensity, and vocally compelling even as he sang from a cage dangling in midair. Poplavskaya burned up the stage with her passion and vocal brilliance. Bass Ievgen Orlov was appropriately nasty in the comprimario role of Loredano, Francesco’s primo enemy. Grant Gershon’s chorus sang splendidly.

In his L.A. Opera debut, director Thaddeus Strassberger pulled together the drama and music with perceptive character portrayals and Bruno Poet’s lighting and bold, eye-catching projections to add a hefty dose of magic realism to a starkly real, sinister atmosphere. In an analogy reflecting the increasing deepness of Domingo’s voice,Strassberger has compared the dark ambiance of this fast-paced production to that of The Dark Knight.

With his ingenious set that took twelve thousand-eight hundred hours to build, scenic designer Kevin Knight effectively depicted the Doge’s Palace, described in Byron’s play as “a palace and a prison,” as a key character in the scenario. Knight’s palazzo provided the perfect setting for Domingo and Co. to recreate the backstabbing political climate of fifteenth-century Venice with convincing élan. Specially constructed instruments of torture, characters flying through the air, and real water symbolizing the instability of a politically corrupt city constructed on mud and about to topple at any time, added to the overall drama in true film industry style.

To top it all off, costume designer Mattie Ullrich created a mixture of styles that encompasses past and present centuries: from the sophisticated, sumptuous costumes with bloodstained underpinnings worn by the Venetian elite to the bizarre, terrifying masks adorning the less savory Carnival entertainers.

James Conlon conducted with his accustomed energy and enthusiasm, albeit with some synchronization issues between stage and pit.

Domingo has said, “I won’t deprive myself of singing opera as long as my voice follows.” By performing his one hundred-fortieth role in what he feels is one of Verdi’s most significant early works, he has created yet another testament to the most miraculous, remarkable, incomparable career of the operatic stage. Let’s hope his voice will follow for many years to come.

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Historical pictures of Foscari can be found at: http://petercochran.files.wordpress.com/2009/03/the_two_foscari.pdf