I due Foscari

Window on the Ca' Foscari, Venice. John Ruskin, plate VIII from The Seven Lamps of Architecture

Window from the Ca’ Foscari, Venice. John Ruskin, plate VIII from The Seven Lamps of Architecture

Not an evening to provoke wild enthusiasm. Verdi’s 1844 opera struck me as being some long way short of his later masterpieces, whether or not a particularly persuasive case was made for it. Its greatest virtue was brevity: 111 minutes of run time, and a half hour interval. The half hour of chatting was more eventful, frankly.

Events are relatively brief: Doge’s exiled son returns for further trial, which is all rigged by vengeful opponent on Venice’s Council of Ten; is exiled again, minus wife and children, and Doge eventually forced to abdicate, whereupon old Doge dies. Ah, and we mustn’t forget to mention that the son dies offstage somewhere during the interval. On the strength of this showing, and a canter through a version on DVD, no character really ‘goes anywhere’: there is little development to speak of, and a very weak building of any sort of dramatic tension. There are some interesting dramatic foreshadows of future Verdi: particularly in pitching public responsibility against private tragedy. The Doge’s death scene, albeit clumsily set up, provides the greatest opportunity for some pathos, but it is too little too late.

Thaddeus Strassberger’s well-travelled production (San Francisco, Valencia, Vienna and now here) had looming rock walls framing a lurid torture chamber (all fetishistic leathermen and half-naked extras). Some puddles of stagnant water at the front of the stage were available for drowning the children, and wooden jetties and trolleys rolled in and out to shift scenes. On a bridge across the back of the set, people walked occasionally but contributed relatively little. The lighting (Bruno Poet) was the most interesting contribution: at the outset, as a cage bearing the younger Foscari was lowered, its ominous shadow was made visible long before it was (to those of us in the Amphi anyway!)

Antonio Pappano led the orchestra, who made perhaps the greatest aural contribution: there were some nice orchestral effects of horns(?) doubling the vocal line, and a generally pleasing bite amidst the gloom. I warmed to Maria Agresta as Lucrezia, but, whilst well-projected after a slightly muddy start, her singing did become rather unvaried. I’m afraid I didn’t at all warm to Francesco Meli’s slightly shouty Foscari jnr: although his softer singing could be attractive and interesting, there was too little of it – reviewing Twitter comments, I’m seemingly in a minority with that view. Maurizio Muraro was suitably dark-sounding as the stock villain, Loredano.

Which brings us to the main event, and the principal reason for unearthing this dreary opera: Plácido Domingo, on another of his baritonal wanderings. I’m afraid it sounded effortful, and not cleanly pitched, and despite the portrayal of an ageing man responding relatively well to such a presentation, it wasn’t until the death scene that he gave us flashes of the extraordinary artist he is, and where the vocal line responded better to being shaped and sculpted. I’ve been quite happy to indulge his exploration of baritone rep hitherto: it may not sound particularly baritonal, but his stage experience is something to marvel at, and it’s nice to have a bit of his star quality on the stage. However, I think this is one too far, and – with a heavy heart – I’m getting to the point where indulgence is being stretched to the limit (particularly with the ‘Domingo premium’ that the ROH loads onto the ticket prices – in my case £47 for a side Amphitheatre, with top stalls hitting £235 for this lacklustre Verdi). It would be sad indeed if the tremendous achievements of his monumental career were to be overshadowed by performances such as this.

So, all in all, not a particularly successful evening: Foscari was last seen at the ROH in 1995 as part of the aborted attempt to run through the entire Verdi canon. If it’s back within 20 years I’d be surprised – and I should add, I am unlikely to be enthusiastic.

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