Teatro Regio di Parma, 2009
Donato Renzetti, Joseph Franconi Lee, Leo Nucci, Roberto De Biasio, Tatiana Serjan, Roberto Tagliavini, Gregory Bonfatti, Marcella Polidori, Mauro Buffoli, Alessandro Bianchini
Tutto Verdi, ARTE Live Web
Composed in 1844 during the composer's 'galley years', Verdi's I Due Foscari is very much an Italian number opera, but it's a number opera par excellence. All the expected emotions and sentiments are there - stirring expressions of patriotism, pleas to God, arias of despair and calls for vengeance - but the development of the plot is far from the usual template, perhaps too far for the work to ever be a solid part of the composer's popular repertoire. There are however other compensations in this lesser-known Verdi that make it well worth seeing, particularly in this fine 2009 production from the Teatro Regio di Parma.
Visually, it's not an exciting production, but it is staged with a sense of understated grandeur that reflects its 15th century Venetian setting as well as suiting Verdi's intentions for the work and its sombre musical tone. Based on a work by Lord Byron, 'The Two Foscari', there's very little dramatic development in a story that is little more than a murder trial where we get to see neither the murder nor the trial. The accused is Jacopo Foscari, son of the Doge of Venice, who is charged with the murder of one of the Donato family and is to be judged by the Council of Ten. One of the Ten, Loredano, is a bitter rival who resists the pleas of mercy from Jacopo's wife Lucrezia, while the Doge himself knows that he can expect no special favours for his son because of his position.
Act I and Act II then consist mainly of Jacopo and his wife Lucrezia separately and together appealing to God, to the Diecie, to Justice and to the hope of the better nature of Man being revealed, but they are resigned to the expectation of cruelty, hatred, villainy and injustice. Even Verdi recognised in his letters to his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, that Byron's work required more dramatic developments to engage the audience, particularly in Act I, but in reality nothing much happens. The only real dramatic conflict seems to be over who is the most affected by the situation, and in the end, that's probably the Doge, Francesco Foscari, torn between being a father and serving his duty (not an uncommon situation in a Verdi opera) finding that even as the ruler of Venice, his power is limited.
Dramatic developments might be few then, but with Verdi this is nonetheless enough to create a compelling drama. It helps if you have great singers to play these roles and, fortunately, the casting for this production in Parma is of the highest order. The names might be unfamiliar, but Roberto De Biasio and Tatiana Serjan as Jacopo and Lucrezia make the first two acts rivetting. De Biasio sings with clarity and purpose, even if the sentiments expressed in prison are fairly standard, as he awaits "a fate worse than death" in exile from his country and his family. Tatiana Serjan however is even more impressive and wins hands down over who is most affected by the charges against Jacopo, taking the largest role in the first two acts.
Act III however belongs to the Doge, and this role is in the experienced hands of Leo Nucci. He doesn't disappoint, his grave intonations perfect for expressing the weight of his character's personal conflict, so great this time that it drives him to his death. If Verdi's musical writing is still quite conventional in places, it's in such moments that his musical invention and experiments with instrumentation bring out the qualities of the work and the splendour of his approach to its construction. A numbers opera it might be, filled with numbers repetitively expressing conventional sentiments, but Verdi allows the intensity to build through the first two acts of I Due Foscari before hitting you with a powerful Act II finale and then following it with a showpiece for the baritone Doge.
The staging by Joseph Franconi Lee is in itself not terribly exciting. The sets are minimal representations of the wooden panels of the Ducal Palace and the prison, but shrouded in darkness they create an appropriately oppressive atmosphere. It's very straightforward and traditional in this respect, the director not even finding any means of representing the traditional scene of gothic horror in the prison cell. The visions here all remain in Jacopo's head. The colour schemes however are effective, the Ten in red, other official figures in black, with the Doge and his throne marked out in vivid gold against the warm brown tones of the Ducal Palace chambers. Nothing too exciting then, but the staging serves the historical context, the dramatic function and the musical tone very well.
Well staged, superbly sung, this then is as good an account of this rare Verdi work as you could possibly expect. I Due Foscari is not great Verdi, it's dramatically restricted by the conventions and the constructions of the number opera, but somehow Verdi manages to overcome its limitations. In some ways the opera is a work that is untypical of the composer, but at the same time it is characteristic of his attention to detail and his unerring ability to find exactly the right tone that best meets the dramatic requirements of the work. It might take you right to the end of Act III however to realise just how masterfully that is achieved.