Royal Opera House, 2014
Antonio Pappano, Thaddeus Strassberger, Plácido Domingo, Francesco Meli, Maria Agresta, Maurizio Muraro, Samuel Sakker, Rachel Kelly, Lee Hickenbottom, Dominic Barrand
Opus Arte - Blu-ray
Some early Verdi operas are worth reviving, and some are really of curiosity value only. I due Foscari, Verdi's sixth opera, is one that is worth coming back to occasionally, if only for the unusually sensitive and dark melancholic beauty of its score. Although there are evident weaknesses in the plot development, it's also worth re-examining now and again just to see if a production can make something more of the strong themes that underpin the work. The Royal Opera House's 2014 production of I due Forscari makes a strong case for the musical value of this work, but Thaddeus Strassberger's production doesn't quite have what it takes to elevate this to the level of being considered a neglected Verdi masterpiece.
Much like the later Un ballo in maschera, the beauty of Verdi's musical composition in I due Foscari far exceeds the quality of libretto and the treatment of the source material. That might seen unfair since I due Foscari (and Un ballo in maschera) are based on real historical events, the former coming from a strong literary source in a work by Lord Byron, but Verdi's writing undoubtedly confers more sensitivity and personality on the characters than is evident from the limited text that describes the plot and the situation. Much of the exciting developments and action I due Foscari however takes place either before the opera starts or occurs off-stage. The last time I reviewed this opera, I described it as a kind of courtroom murder drama where we don't see either the killing or the trial. The main drama having already taken place, the characters are mostly left to just run through the standard numbers that express their grief and anger (the dominant moods here) towards life's cruel twists of fate. It wouldn't be far off the rigid formula and expression of an opera seria format in that respect.
What is significant here in I due Foscari however it that the work evidently comes from a very personal dark place, and it's more than just railing against fate and the cruel whims of the gods. We do get plenty of that in the nature of the opera itself and in the dark 'tinta' of the work. Doge Francesco Foscari's deep melancholy over the death of his three children and the imprisonment and trial of his only remaining son is undoubtedly informed by Verdi's own personal family experiences with the deaths of his children. There is also however a burning anger at human injustice, the abuse of power and authority and the impact on lives crushed for the sake of greed, ambition and personal gain.
I due Foscari then isn't a conventional numbers opera by any means, nor one that is plot-led. It's about exploring character, personality, location, mood and situation. Bel canto can go so far in exploring and giving voice to those sentiments, but Verdi's score - while giving tremendous voice to his characters in their arias - goes much further musically than his predecessors of Donizetti and Bellini. The quality and expressiveness of Verdi's music helps define all those other external elements and internal conflicts that impact upon a person in the kind of situations that Jacopo, his wife Lucrezia and his father the Doge find themselves in. Whether the quality of the drama merits it or not, I due Foscari is a fascinating early sketch for future developments that the composer would expand upon in La Traviata and Rigoletto and with even greater facility and purpose in his mature later works.
It's clearly much more than a sketch, but at the same time, it's still rather less than a successful whole. You can't fault Thaddeus Strassberger's intentions for the production to reflect the dark tone of I due Foscari and something of the feel for its Venetian locations without getting too mired in period realism. Kevin Knight's set designs however aren't always able to reflect those intentions on the Covent Garden stage, succeeding only in making Venice look exceedingly ugly. The ugliness is I'm sure intentional, reflecting a deeper reality beneath the surface beauty and the elegant formalism and attire of the Dieci - the Council of Ten. The use of water and platforms to walk above the floods for example are a less 'picture-postcard' view of Venice that serve well to show another side of the character of the lagoon city.
The production however pushes the bleakness and nihilism much too far, over-emphasising what is already there in abundance in Verdi's score. Additional gory scenes of dismemberment and torture are unnecessary; there's more than enough personal torment there already in the lives and in the fates of Jacopo, Francesco and Lucrezia without adding to it so heavy-handedly. It also takes things a little too far at the conclusion, which is powerful enough on its own terms without Lucrezia collapsing into raving madness and violently drowning her own son, but there's no doubt it has the desired impact of stunning the audience into the realisation that this is far from the kind of Verdi opera we are familiar with.
Where the production is most successful is in the actual performance. Antonio Pappano's conducting of the Royal Opera House orchestra made the biggest impression, demonstrating fully the qualities of Verdi's score. It was delivered with force and vigour and yet at the same time with tenderness and sensitivity for the fluctuations of mood and tempo. All four of the principal roles impressed, and arguably, they're all equally important in this work. You can see why Plácido Domingo has moved into the Verdi baritone repertoire with roles like Francesco Foscari out there. It suits his age and stature as well - you couldn't imagine him singing the tenor role of Jacopo here, for example. He doesn't have the rich baritone growl of Leo Nucci in the role of Doge, but the passion is all there, some of the phrasing is beautiful and he works wonderfully with what is expressed in the musical accompaniment.
Domingo's fit for the role really comes apparent when he's working with the other performers, and it's no coincidence that this is also when the full power of Verdi's writing is at its strongest in this work. The duet with Lucrezia, the trio with Lucrezia and Jacopo are some of the high points of this work and they come across marvellously in this interpretation. That's as much to do with the impassioned edgy performance of Maria Agresta as Lucrezia and the lyrical beauty of Maurizio Muraro's Jacopo - each of them reflecting Verdi's clear writing and characterisation of the roles. The writing for the chorus also serves an important function in I due Foscari, and that too is handled impressive and to great effect by the Royal Opera Chorus under the direction of Renato Balsadonna.
On Blu-ray, the performance feels somewhat more cold and clinical than it appeared when broadcast live in the Royal Opera House's 2014 Cinema Season, but the qualities of the performances are all there in the fine High-Definition presentation, particularly in the uncompressed PCM stereo mix. Extra features on the Blu-ray include a brief Introduction to I due Foscari, which has interviews with the cast, with Pappano, Strassberger and a look at the costume and set design for this production. An Interview with Antonio Pappano looks in a little more detail at the leitmotifs and the beautiful melodies that Verdi composed for the work. The enclosed booklet has a good synopsis and an essay by Francesco Izzo that looks at the distinctive musical colour and characgterisation that makes this a significant Verdi work.