Review: Domingo, Meli, Poplavskaya Shine in Strassberger’s Rousing Revival of Verdi’s “Two Foscari” – Los Angeles Opera, September 15, 2012

A sellout Los Angeles Opera audience greeted Placido Domingo with an out-sized ovation for his latest exploration of the less-traveled baritone repertory. Domingo opened the Los Angeles Opera’s 26th season as Francesco Foscari in a provocative new Thaddeus Strassberger production of Verdi’s sixth opera, “I Due Foscari”, with the scenic designs of Kevin Knight and costumes of Mattie Ullrich.

A bit of background on Lord Byron’s take on Venetian history

Strassberger’s vision follows the cue of the flamboyant British expatriate, Lord Byron, whose 1821 poetic play The Two Foscari concentrates on the sinister underworld of 15th century Venice. Knight’s austere sets represent the unglamourous Venetian structures that hide state-sponsored torture, summary judgment and official “executions”. Even the Carnival festivities, briefly seen in the third act, are infiltrated by officers of the state.

Byron’s The Two Foscari  recounts the final days of the reign of Doge Francesco Foscari. The historical Doge’s 34 year reign had been dominated with wars with the Northern Italian states, principally the Milan of the Visconti dynasty.

These Northern Italian wars occurred at a time when the Ottoman Turks were capturing valuable Venetian territories in the Eastern Mediterranean, eroding Francesco’s political support.  The losses of Venetian territory in the Muslim advance during Francesco’s reign emboldened his enemies, especially those who had accused him of complicity in the past murder of his political rival, Pietro Loredan.

Meanwhile, Francesco’s only surviving son, Jacopo, had been accused of treasonous activities with Venice’s Milanese enemies.

At the time in which the opera is based, Venice occupied the Mediterranean island of Crete with military force. Banishment from Venice to Crete – from which escape was impossible – would have been a devastating sentence.

The point of view of both Byron’s play and Verdi’s opera is sympathetic to both Foscari. The descendants and supporters of the political figures Francesco Foscari is accused of eliminating are cast as the evil forces, as are the Council of Ten and the giunta (probably meant to signify the larger Council of 40).

The play and opera deem Jacopo Foscari to be innocent of charges of complicity with Milan, and tortured (and then killed) unjustly.

Unlike Rossini’s “Maometto II” of two decades earlier [see my review at Stormy Weather, But Strong Performances from Pisaroni, Crocetto, Bardon, Sledge in Rossini’s “Maometto II” – Santa Fe Opera, August 2, 2012], the battles between the Muslims and Venice’s subjects in the Eastern Mediterranean play no part in the opera.

Placido Domingo’s Francesco Foscari

Domingo, who would have a prominent position on the shortest lists of the world’s great 20th century operatic tenors, seems destined to place high on the list of the world’s great 21st century operatic baritones as well.

Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Opera had seen Domingo in the title role of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra”, a mostly imaginary account of the affairs of the historic 14th century Doge of Genoa [See Legend Making at Los Angeles Opera – Placido Domingo, James Conlon Lead Star-Studded “Simon Boccanegra”, February 11, 2012].

Seven months later, the Los Angeles Opera’s 26th season opened with a new production of Verdi’s “I Due Foscari”, a rather more historically-based account of the affairs of the historic 15th Doge of Venice.

[Below: Placido Domingo as Doge Francesco Foscari; edited image of a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Domingo, whose late career role choices have been savvy ones, has chosen an opera that is both lushly melodic and filled with dramatic situations. The opera  is an excellent vehicle to display the quite amazing quality of his voice, which, even if centered a few tones lower than at his zenith as a  tenor, has retained a secure legato, and a beautiful lyrical tone.

[Below: Loredano (Ievgan Orlov, above) makes the Doge (Placido Domingo, below) aware of the dictates of the Venetian Council of Ten; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

At the same time, the character he is portraying is one who is aware that his once iron-fisted grip on power is loosening, who is anguished that he is powerless to acquit his only surviving son from from punishment under the processes of Venetian law.

Francesco Meli’s Jacopo Foscari 

I suspect that if a tenor was told he was signing onto a new production in which he would be placed in a cage that was slowly lowered from high above the stage while he was singing his opening arias, which would then disappear through a trapdoor below stage, he might have second thoughts about the commitment.

But those second thoughts might vanish when he realizes that the production in which he is appearing is one in which he is performing one of two men memorialized in the opera’s title, with Domingo playing the other man.

[Below: Jacopo Foscari (Francesco Meli), who is caged and tortured; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The cage literally became the vehicle for the Los Angeles Opera debut of Genoese tenor Francesco Meli, whose debut appearance at the Kennedy Center I had reported on earlier [See Francesco Meli, Sonia Ganassi in Theatrically Absorbing “Werther” – Washington National Opera, May 14, 2012.]

Meli’s rich lyric tenor handsomely fits the role of Jacopo Foscari. Jacopo is one of those extraordinary tenor roles that abound in early Verdi, unceasingly melodic, both in his monologue arias and in his duets and then trio with wife (Marina Poplavskaya’s Lucrezia) and father (Domingo’s Doge Francesco)

[Below: Jacopo Focari (Francesco Meli, left) reacts to his bouts of torture with hallucinatory moments; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Marina Poplavskaya’s Lucrezia Contarini

Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya, whose Los Angeles debut occurred in 2009 [see A New Verdian Golden Age? – Poplavskaya, Giordano in Elegant Agostinucci “Traviata”: Los Angeles Opera, May 21, 2009] sang the role of Lucrezia Contarini, descendent of another great Venetian family and wife of Jacopo Foscari.

Lucrezia is one of the string of early Verdi roles such as Abigaille in “Nabucco”, Giselda in “I Lombardi” and Odabella in “Attila” that, not too many years ago, were regarded as too “voice-killing” for a world class soprano to take on. Significantly, the soprano for whom the part of Lucrezia was written, later was the Lady in the first production of Verdi’s “Macbeth”.

Poplavskaya, certainly a “world class” soprano, proved adept at handling the part’s coloratura features and ferocious cabalettas and sang gloriously in the duets and trios with Meli and Domingo. That her music, both solo and with tenor and/or baritone looks forward to later Verdi, particularly the Maria Amelia/Gabriele Adorno/Boccanegra scenes in “Simon Boccanegra” is so obvious that many have remarked on it.

[Below: Lucrezia Contarini (Marina Poplavskaya, below) pleads with her father-in-law, Doge Francesco Foscari (Placido Domingo, above) to acquit his son of the charges against him; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

However, there is much in these scenes that reminds one of earlier works by Donizetti as well, particularly Lucrezia’s pace-changing section Di questo affanno orrendo of the trio with her father and imprisoned husband.

Lucrezia’s music thereby abounds in vintage bel canto, which Poplavskaya dispatched seemingly effortlessly.

Lucrezia, like the Foscari, also has moments of great drama, such as bringing the young sons of Jacopo Foscari into the Doge’s chambers with council in session (an improbable act for a 15th century Venetian woman, even if a dramatic artifice of Verdi and his librettist Piave) to try to win sympathy from the council who has condemned her husband.

[Below: front row, from left to right, Lucrezia (Marina Poplavskaya) has brought the sons of Jacopo Foscari (Francesco Meli, kneeling, embracing his sons) to the council chamber of Doge Francesco Foscari (Placido Domingo, center, wearing Doge’s robes) as the decemvirs of the Council of Ten, the Giunta and a Chorus of Women (above) look on; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

In Strassberger’s version, ultimately the Lucrezia character’s good works are tarnished a bit. Once both Foscari are dead and the Foscari enemies are in control, she very publicly has Jacopo’s sons drowned and switches loyalty to the new regime, in what is apparently socially acceptable behaviour in Renaissance Venice.

Strassberger and Early Verdi

Thaddeus Strassberger’s “Due Foscari” is his second major early Verdi production this year, following a spectacular production he designed for the Kennedy Center [see Strassberger’s Verdi-Year “Nabucco” – Leo An, Csilla Boross Are Magnificent in Inventive Production – Washington National Opera, May 15, 2012].

[Below: Director Thaddeus Strassberger; resized image of a promotional photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

“Nabucco” is firmly established in the outer periphery of the standard repertory, but “Due Foscari”, even if blessed by wonderful Verdian music, remains a rarity in live performance.

The current production builds on the opera’s inherent focus on the seedier sides of Venetian society, dramatically realizing the scenes of state-sanctioned torture. In a century in which television series are dedicated to the notorius deeds of the Renaissance Borgias, one could imagine a melodious Verdi opera about the notorieties of Renaissance Venice might gain audience approval.

[Below: Loredano (Ievgen Orlov front right, in red sleeves) appears in Carnival costume; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The new Los Angeles Opera production is an important introduction of the opera to audiences who in the main have never seen it in live performance.

I recommend the production unreservedly, for the historic performance of Placido Domingo, the world class performances of Francesco Meli and Marina Poplavskaya, Verdi’s superb music brilliantly conducted by James Conlon, and the inventive concepts of Director Thaddeus Strassberger.