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Who let the Doge out?

Once again, we’re back with the Parmigiani at the Teatro Regio and their Tutto Verdi project marking the upcoming bicentennial of the great maestro’s birth. All these releases bear the humble recommendation from a Frankfurt news outlet, the name of which is nearly unpronounceable, that says,”This is how Verdi should be played.”  Not addressed, however, is a more important question: is this how Verdi should be staged and sung?

Verdi was fascinated with politics and I Due Foscari may be his most heavily “political” work, even more than Don Carlo and Simon Boccanegra, in which the characters at least enjoy moments of happiness in repose. Nearly all of Foscari has its dramatis personae embroiled in an imbroglio involving the accusation of murder made against the Doge’s son Jacopo Foscari.

The unhappiness of everyone involved is relentless and even Verdi himself judged the finished work too somber and not a success.  Musically, although it rises to real magnificence in the Act II finale in the council chamber, it is an uneven work and we have the young Verdi still finding his way when it comes to vocal writing for the tenor and the soprano.

I’m embarrassed to admit that in spite of being a diagnosable opera recording hoarder I’ve never heard a note of this work and just on that level I found this performance to be a pleasure. Of course, now that Placido Domingo has embarked on his Foscari World Tour I have a feeling we’re all going to get to know it a lot better, whether we like it or not.

Filmed in 2009 and gleaned from two performances it makes a solid case for this opera inspite of its provincial pedigree which is acutely obvious to anyone who watches. This time the presentation is far clearer than the previous I Lombardi in this series and, inspite of a silent movie staged Prelude, sticks close to the composer’s intention.

The set and costume designs by William Orlandi betray their modest origins but still manage to be evocative. A shallow flight of stairs downstage to a simple wooden circle of risers for the council chamber with walls on a revolve that cover or reveal.  A backdrop of Venice comes and goes as needed and then some prison cell bars downstage right for Act II Scene I.

Costumes are all monochromatic and their simplicity is an advantage to the overall staging in being able to identify social groups. The Members of the Council of Ten are all garbed in robes made of heinous red polyester organza with the Junta in black. Lucrezia, the lead soprano, and her maidservants are in satins of silver, gray and black with no jewelry. The one scene of Venetian revelry that opens Act III finds everyone masked wearing a new white organza slipcover over what they already have on.

The role of Jacopo Loredano, who sets most of the wickedness in action, is played by Roberto Tagliavini.  He’s tall, slim and fairly young and although most of his role is really anchoring the ensembles he displays a solid basso that serves the music well. I can’t say that his work is particularly characterful but it’s promising.

This may sound ridiculous but it was love at first sight for me when Lucrezia’s confident, Pisana, walked on stage in the form of soprano Marcella Polidori.  This handsome woman of a certain age is obviously making a career of what a friend of mine calls the “che avvenne ascolta?” roles.  She moves with an innate grace and dignity that can’t be taught, and her exquisite facial and physical expressions of concern and entreatment prove her to be a mistress of her craft. She is the personification of what can be excellent in a provincial performance and I hope to see more of her work in this series.  I wish I could tell you she has the most beautiful voice in the world but, once again, the role is almost completely lost in ensemble.

Here the tenore secondo from the Lombardi, Robert de Baisio has been promoted to primo in the role of the Doge’s son Jacopo Foscari. His voice is sturdy and strong with very little glamour in his tone. His opening aria “Dal piu remoto esilio” has some tricky ascending phrases that bring him grief. He does manage to rally for the very rousing cabaletta that follows in spite of dropping out completely in the final stretta so he can blastissimo on the last note.

His posture is uniformly horrible throughout the evening as it appears he thinks his voice emanates from his furrowed brow and he bends his body forward to facilitate that. By evening’s end he has a solid success that can only be faulted for lack of grace but certainly not power. He is a gold star graduate of the semaphore school of stage acting.

Tatiana Serjan as his wife Lucrezia is beset by another set of challenges all together. Verdi’s writing for soprano in this opera is for the most part the equivalent of a vocal booby trap. Her opening cavatina and cabaletta find her firing salvos of approximatura off the bow that never reach their intended destination. Her basic vocal quality through the middle to the bottom has a warm auburn coloring that’s alluring but she lacks a real trill and develops a serious flutter above the staff.  She is a completely committed artist, not to mention a beautiful woman who knows how to wear a gown.

The 80 year old Doge of Venice is wrung dry of every last bit of pathos and emotion by the 67 year old Leo Nucci.  Sadly, here is where we are presented with what is the most provincial measure of the evening. Mr. Nucci has always been an extremely canny singer and long after most of his contemporaries have retired we find him still in excellent vocal estate. His strengths and weaknesses have remained constant throughout his long career. He scoops up to every note above a D in order to keep his vocal center strong and avoid disconnecting the top. The very careful positioning of his mouth helps to keep his tone from spreading and evenly regulates his emission of breath. All of these tricks have preserved his baritone long past the intended shelf date.

His acting is done mostly with his voice and a palsied right hand. I’ve always found his timbre to be a jot on the dry side but he is an absolute tower of strength from his first entrance all the way until his grand scena,”Questa dunque é l’iniqua mercede” in the finale of Act III.

He receives a rousing ovation for this from an obviously appreciative audience and suddenly Mr. Nucci completely forgets he’s in the middle of an performance, drops any pretense at characterisation, and gives himself a couple of big, smiling, bows. He also graciously acknowledges the orchestra, conductor and his colleagues on stage. If only he’d waited the less than 10 minutes until the actual finale of the opera I would have applauded all the harder. Nothing less than shocking until I realized: forget it, Jake, it’s Parma.

The stage director Joseph Franconi Lee manages to group everyone in a painterly fashion onstage making for some lovely tableaux.  The Venetian barcarolle at the beginning of Act II is a bit of a mess from a staging standpoint and the choreography of Marta Ferri and the lackluster group of dancers she’s been given don’t bolster the mood.  Lighting by Valerio Alfieri is mildly evocative and there’s a complete lack of follow spots which I found refreshing.

Maestro Donato Renzetti looks like your favorite uncle as he cheerfully saunters into the pit. He and the orchestra give an uncommonly strong reading of this work that goes a long way towards filling in the blanks of this uneven score. Picture is sharp and sound offers standard PCM and DTS 5.1 options. I feel confident that this is, inspite of its provincial origins, a good, but not great, rendering of a work that deserves a wider hearing.

23 comments

  • Camille says:

    Blastissimo, approximatura, “Che avenne, ascolta”

    Gotta love it.

  • Porgy Amor says:

    I haven’t seen the new DVD, but the work has been well done by. The Scala DVD from the 1980s is one of the best things in Opus Arte’s Scala box set (titles available individually). Bruson gives one of his most affecting performances, Gavazzeni conducts with verve, and it’s one of Pier Luigi Pizzi’s best productions. Elsewhere, as if often the case with decorators turned directors, PLP can seem more concerned with aesthetics than with human drama, but here he does telling things, such as making the elderly and enfeebled Doge climb a staircase to be seated on a throne that puts him both high up and far removed…and to the eye, smaller. The real power, the Council, is at ground level, far from the Doge’s ear. Probably the best-known name in the cast other than Bruson is Luigi Roni, who plays the Doge’s principal antagonist. As the son and daughter-in-law, Cupido and Roark-Strummer are adequate. Her voice is not a treat to hear; she compensates by giving a lot of bite and point to the character’s passionate pleas. (Not to start an argument, but I’ve read reviews suggesting Poplavskaya had the measure of this fiery character too, in Los Angeles.)

    I haven’t heard it in years, but I had a high opinion of the Philips recording too (Ricciarelli, Carreras, Cappuccilli, Ramey; Gardelli). Some of those early-Verdi sets had an assembly-line quality to them, and I won’t argue there’s a lot of imagination and depth evident in the portrayals here. But this recording was starting with a stronger opera than most of its brethren, and this group served it persuasively. They were all luxury voices in great shape, and if they don’t know the particulars of I DUE FOSCARI backward and forward, they are very conversant with its style.

    • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

      And forget not that it was in Foscari with Cappuccili that Katia made her USA opera debut in Chicago at Lyric Opera.

  • Cocky Kurwenal says:

    I think the shenanigans with the mid-performance bowing etc is Nucci rather than Parma. I saw him do exactly the same thing at the Royal Opera during Rigoletto after the vendetta duet, which was also the only time I have ever heard an encore at the Royal Opera House. I probably don’t have to tell you that it isn’t normally that kind of place at all (except on Royal Ballet nights, where absolutely anything goes).

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    I prefer Capuccili’s Foscari and will be interested to see the various DVDs of Domingo doing it when they are released. While there are many great moments in this opera, for me, the measure of a really great performance is how the Doge does the final cabaletta “Un odio infernale.” Here a complete performance with Nucci from the Teatro di San Carlo:




  • phoenix says:

    Patrick Macks it again! A super review as well as entertaining read. Thanks.

  • papopera says:

    Any real musical value in reviving this ancient work ? Or is it just because it was composed by Verdi ? Would anyone pay attention to it if it had been written by, say, Catalani, Leoni or Mercadante? I think not.

    • Porgy Amor says:

      How can we say the composer’s name doesn’t actually work against it? A hypothetical case could go the other way — if a 19th-century lesser light had written I DUE FOSCARI, it might be that composer’s masterpiece, but with Verdi it’s not even in his upper half, not even his best opera about an embattled Doge with paternal issues. It still has considerable musical and theatrical value. More of it than ATTILA or I LOMBARDI.

      If suddenly there were a spate of productions of IL CORSARO or ALZIRA, then I would say, point to you.

  • grimoaldo says:

    “Nearly all of Foscari has its dramatis personae embroiled in an imbroglio involving the accusation of murder made against the Doge’s son Jacopo Foscari.

    The unhappiness of everyone involved is relentless and even Verdi himself judged the finished work too somber and not a success.”

    I Due Foscari is based on a historical verse drama by Lord Byron. One of the reasons why I love opera is that it is the only form where a lot of past dramatic works that are never performed in “straight” theatres are preserved, albeit in the altered form necessary for change to a libretto.
    Yes the subject is unremittingly gloomy, and Verdi came to feel the opera lacked variety, however I think I Due Foscari is tremendous, it is one of Verdi’s “experimental” operas in a way, too much perhaps on one sombre note to be box office gold in the composer’s lifetime or now,but very successful in what it is trying to do, and achieves. It is a gloomy masterpiece, these days we do not necessarily feel the lack of some dancing girls or a divertissment at some point, do we?

    Byron wrote a number of historical verse dramas, on the principle that ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’, actual occurrences from history are more interesting and dramatic than anything someone could make up, and the drama and libretto follow historical events quite closely.
    One of the interesting things about Foscari is that there are repeated motivic themes for the Doge, Lucrezia, the junta of ten, and when Verdi was criticised for adopting Wagnerian methods in Aida, with Aida’s theme, Amneris’ jealousy theme, etc., he could and did point to Foscari as an example of an opera where he had used similar thematic organisation long before he had ever heard of Wagner.
    The opera is full of glorious music from start to finish, the opening aria for Lucrezia is one of my favourites. She is waiting outside the Council Chamber where her husband is being tried and the first section is an exquisitely beautiful prayer for heaven’s mercy. Then she is told that her husband has been found guilty and sentenced to exile, and explodes in a furious cabaletta of denunciation.
    Magnificent Caballe recording from “Verdi rarities”, 1968:

    The great Leyla Gencer,1957

    June Anderson, cabaletta only, Covent Garden 1995 (saw this live three times)

    Tatiana Serjan, cabaletta only, must be quite recent, although the date and locale are not given:

    Tremendous, staggeringly great complete performance from 1957 that the Gencer aria is taken from, with her and Gian Giacomo Guelfi as the Doge,conducted by Tullio Serafin, from La Fenice:

    • grimoaldo says:

      Oh, the Serjan clip is probably from the performance reviewed, judging by the description of the costumes.Her coloratura does not sound so bad to me, quite exciting, certainly I imagine it is better than the horror appearing in this role with Domingo on his World Tour of this opera (not going to listen to her, cannot face it).

      • phoenix says:

        I enjoyed Serjan as Lida in Battaglia di Legnano last year -- no, she’s not absolutely note-for-note perfect, but she gets points from me for her elegant legato & phrasing.

        • stevey says:

          Serjan’s Sleepwalking scene, as heard here, to me sounds pretty much perfect.
          Check it out!

          (isn’t that fil di voce stunning????)

          • Bianca Castafiore says:

            stevey, she’s fabulous! Is this clip from a rehearsal? The prompter is so loud!!!!

          • Bianca Castafiore says:

          • stevey says:

            My God, Bianca, you’re right… I had never noticed it before.

            Glad you enjoyed it, I thought it was nigh-on perfect when I first heard it.

            Serjan certainly seems to be the Verdi soprano of choice by Riccardo Muti right about now… with the exception of one run of ‘Simon Boccanegra’ (to which it might be said that her voice isn’t perhaps appropriate), in absolutely EVERY run of Verdi operas that Muti will be conducting from the beginning of this year until the end of next (which is 2 Verdi Requiems, 2 runs of Macbeths, 1 of I Due Foscari, and 2 of Nabucco), Serjan is his (and his ONLY) soprano!

    • stevey says:

      Grimaldo! You MUST check out the posting I just made at the end of this thread, of Martile Rowland’s rendition of this particular aria.

      Like you, I adore this opera (and the role of Lucrezia), and have amassed (I think) 10 or so recordings (some of, admittedly, dubious quality) of it (OCD can be useful sometimes!). My Lucrezia’s are Ricciarelli, 2 Manon Feubels, Katarina Kudriavchenko, Kalinina, Theodossiou, Gencer, Helen Bickers, Miricioiu, and Rowland and, really, Rowland is pretty amazing, even in comparison to the great Gencer (who is, as you say, terrific here). I do hope you’ll check it out, and let me know what you think.

      Best wishes!

      • grimoaldo says:

        Thanks for that stevey, yes Rowland is very exciting and impressive in that aria.
        I also agree that the ensemble finale to Act Two is one of the greatest things ever, there are no words to say how much I love it, it is thrilling, beautiful, deeply moving and a perfect example of the unique ability of opera to express conflicting emotions of different characters simultaneously.
        Here is another version, from the complete Naples performance posted by Quanto above, with Nucci and your favourite Alexandrina Pendatchanska, cond Santi:

  • stevey says:

    Thank you, P-Mack, for this great review. Points for sheer magnificence must be awarded to your friend for his “che avvenne ascolta” roles (WHO among us didn’t know EXACTLY what he/she meant???), as well as for pointing out that the conductor saunters out looking like our favorite uncle (I just checked. He really does!!!).

    I absolutely love this opera, yet have no idea why. It has little of the madness and bloodletting, wide-eyed, possessed, Kunst-diva type opportunities that normally turn my crank. It is thus with wonder that I acknowledge that I actually think it’s simply due to what it has to offer musically (okay, the omnipresent doom, gloom, misery, and general unhappiness of everybody involved probably DOES help…).
    But the arias, duets, trios, and quartets… all of them have so much to offer the listener- perhaps not anything deeply profound, but wonderfully enjoyable. I remember thinking that ‘Foscari’ could have been a ‘how-to’ guide as to how to compose an opera “Okay, we need a duet here. Then there should be an aria. Now another duet, but between BARITONE and soprano. Here a trio. (etc.)”… and pretty much everything ‘works’. Dramatically, it could be said to be somewhat ‘inert’, but if sung right, it does make for some wonderful listening.

    And, one point you have made that I really must highlight, and add my two cents (which are, admittedly, really probably valued at about .65 cents on the market when compared to the knowledge of the rest of you…)- the ensemble that ends Act 2 is just simply TERRIFIC. Love it, love it, love it! If this makes any sense (again, I am a total musical neophyte when it comes to technical knowledge of the art from), how Verdi blends the voices- his use of the sole soprano voice of the Lucrezia, the brooding, implacable male chorus, is just wonderful.

    For anybody who is interested, here’s a clip of what we’re talking about (and thanks for keeping up with me to the end of this comment!!):

    Act 2 finale (ensemble) from ‘I Due Foscari’-
    La Scala production. Renato Bruson, Alberto Cupido, Linda Roark-Strummer (who appears to be aiming at blasting out your speakers with Lucrezia’s final high note here- gotta love her!), et al:

    ALSO…

    You guys (who are interested) GOTTA check this out!!!:

    Martile Rowland, in (what seems to me, at least) complete mastery of both her capabilities and the music- high, low, coloratura, you name it- completely attacking Lucrezia’s fierce and defiant Act 1 cabaletta. Give it a listen:

    FIERCE!!!! :-)

  • Jack Jikes says:

    Mille grazie to all the Foscari yea-sayers and their attendant insights.
    I too adore the work.