The LA Opera poster for Verdi’s I DUE FOSCARI, starring Placido Domingo
I DUE FOSCARI was only Verdi’s 6th opera, coming after NABUCCO and ERNANI, but a few years before his great middle period, and long before the masterpieces he created at the end of his remarkable life. Had he not written TROVATORE and TRAVIATA (to say nothing of AIDA, OTELLO and FALSTAFF) I think today’s audiences would consider FOSCARI one of the greatest operas written in the middle of the 19th century!
What a surprise! I cannot recall ever having heard even a note of this opera before, and simply reading a synopsis of the libretto didn’t prepare me for the extraordinary power of the piece.
Based on an English play by Lord Byron, in turn based on historical events concerning the long reign of Francesco Foscari, Venice’s longest serving Doge (the elected ruler of this far reaching naval power) the libretto was by Francesco Maria Piave, a Venetian by birth. It was originally offered to the Fenice Opera House, but was turned down by the theater as “unsuitable.”
The Teatro Argentina, an opera house in Rome, another city state in those years before the unification of Italy, however, had no compunction whatsoever about presenting an opera depicting the corruption in Venetian politics, and the powerful censors in Rome demanded not a word of the text be changed.
The plot is slight. The doge’s son, Jacopo, the second Foscari of the title, has been accused of treason, found guilty although he is innocent, and banished to Crete. In order to return to his beloved Venice to see his wife and family, he really does perform an act of treason (by illegally writing to the head of another state) knowing that his letter will be intercepted and that he will be returned to stand trial.
The doge is torn between his love of his son and his sense of duty to the citizens of Venice, where he has ruled for more than 30 years.
Ultimately, Francesco Foscari decides he cannot interfere with his son’s fate, Jacopo is banished and not being able to face deportation again, he dies before the ship even leaves the harbor.
No unrequited love story. No mistaken identities. Just a father’s anguish and a wife’s love of a man unjustly accused of a crime.
I know it doesn’t sound like much of a story, but the skill of Piave’s libretto in setting up the emotional conflict and the power of Verdi’s music (where one can already hear the seeds of RIGOLETTO, TROVATORE and OTELLO in particular) make for a thrilling evening in the theater.
The production was wonderfully conducted by James Conlon, who obviously has a passion for early Verdi, and starred Placido Domingo in the baritone role as the father. Mr. Domingo made his US opera debut at The Dallas Opera more than 50 years ago, and his performance in the demanding role was a “tour de force” and in a man his age, nothing short of a miracle. He truly deserves all the acclaim he receives and is a living legend.
The role of his son was superbly sung by young Italian tenor Francesco Meli, who is already launched on an important career, having recently debuted at La scala in Milan and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
This was a night I will long remember. As I said in my posting yesterday, I thought this might be like stepping back in time and attending the world premiere of a new work of a promising young composer.
That was exactly what it felt like!
I walked out of the theater thinking that this Verdi kid might just turn out to have the sort of talent to write music to which we’ll still be listening in two hundred years time!