Cher Public

Double Doge dare

Plácido Domingo‘s lengthy career began in the 1960s, when recorded opera was at its apex. Never exclusive to a particular label as some colleagues were, the Spanish superstar tenor made two or more complete recordings of many calling cards: Manrico, Riccardo/Gustavo, Don Carlos (with and without the “s”), Radamès, Samson, Hoffmann, Otello, Des Grieux, Cavaradossi. Over 50 years, the formats for complete operas recordings changed more than once. There were the decline of the LP and the rise and fall of the CD. Videocassettes and laser discs gave way to DVDs and Blu-rays. 

In the present decade, Domingo has controversially turned to baritone roles, and his performances continue to be favored by labels that license and distribute video broadcasts. He had three DVD releases in the title role of Simon Boccanegra, from New York, London and Milan, all 2010. C-Major now gives us the second DVD/Blu-ray with Domingo as Verdi’s other beleaguered Doge, Francesco in I due Foscari.

The earlier DVD preserved a 2014 Royal Opera House production about which I found little good to say. As grateful as I am for the review copies our friends at the labels send us, I did not approach the do-over (La Scala, Milan, winter 2016) with enthusiasm. However, the new release proves a superior product in every way, and if you want a DVD or Blu-ray of I due Foscari with Domingo in the baritone role, this is the one to get.

As we covered last semester, Verdi’s sixth opera, an adaptation of Byron’s Venetian tragedy The Two Foscari, is a concentrated and unusual piece, gloomy and inward. The first word we hear is a quiet choral “Silenzio,” and this sets a tone. Although there are powerful emotions at the center of the drama, the handling of them is muted, and the opera is more about anticipation and reaction than action. At the time of the premiere, the composer was 31, already with great successes (Nabucco and Ernani) and one confidence-crippling fiasco (Un giorno di regno) to his name.

Foscari has three central characters: the elderly Doge Francesco Foscari (baritone), who has held office for decades; his son Jacopo (tenor), imprisoned and facing exile for what may be false accusations, and Jacopo’s strong-willed wife, Lucrezia (soprano). Lucrezia pleads with her father-in-law to defy the fearsome Council of Ten and intercede on his son’s behalf, and Francesco must balance a father’s love with duty and protocol.

Latvian neo-traditionalist director/designer Alvis Hermanis has devised a production that combines modern theatrical capabilities with devices and techniques as old as opera itself. A short scene may be played downstage, with half or a third of the stage’s depth used, and a backdrop or projection screen will rise for its sequel. The 15th-century furnishings are suggestive rather than opulent, and a chorister or super might carry off a chair in exeunt.

Jacopo’s cell is represented by ten stone Lions of St. Mark, which hidden atmospheric personnel move by hand. Thus, the lions appear to prowl and stalk the doomed hero; “justice” is something monstrous. By the time Lucrezia and Francesco join Jacopo for the great three-handed scene, only one lion remains. These three unhappy people cling to each other, and the lion looks on, its frozen roar looking like a mocking laugh.

Lighting designer Gleb Fleshtinsky bathes the surface world’s official business in warm golden tones, which go gray and harsh with an emotional shift or a move to the dungeon. Kristine Jurjane‘s period costumes are in realistically drab hues; they do not call attention to themselves.

The one regrettable element of this unambitious but sensible and well-managed production is the use of ten dancers, choreographed by Alla Sigalova. They wear domino masks in the opening scene for Council and Giunta, and raise clawed hands in a “kitty about to pounce” pose. Things only go downhill from there. The dancers make several costume changes over the work’s duration, sometimes playing Council members and sometimes gondoliers. They vogue, pop and lock to the music’s rhythms, execute semaphore gestures, scamper across the stage in single file while glancing around furtively, undulate and do knee bends in silhouette behind a scrim, churn the butter with their oars.

I would say they added nothing, but that would not be accurate. They added giggles. This is not the fault of the dancers or their choreographer; there just is no place for dancing in most of these scenes. Mr. Hermanis apparently disagreed, but did not budge me from my original position.

Michele Mariotti, an Italian conductor not yet 40, conducts a performance that is deserving of the raves he has received for earlier work that left me unconvinced. When I reviewed the London production with Domingo, I praised Antonio Pappano for the “case-making zeal and sharp definition” of his leadership. Mariotti has a less emphatic, more delicate touch. In making his own case for the opera, he seeks to entrance us rather than shake us up, with gentler accenting, more give in the line, soft pastels rather than Pappano’s bold primaries.

On other occasions I have felt that the agogic freedom Mariotti goes for can stall momentum. Here, the flexibility is put to expressive use each time, and it works against a stiffness that can invade this score, in which Verdi used leitmotifs in a rudimentary way. The music, like the characters, seems to struggle against mounting odds. This is Giulinian Verdi—high praise.

The role of Lucrezia was created by the soprano who a few years later would be Verdi’s first Lady Macbeth. Although Lucrezia sometimes is taken by Amelia Grimaldi/Desdemona types, her music goes best with a soprano who is or could be a Lady Macbeth. The London performance had an Amelia Grimaldi/Desdemona type, who sounded to be punching above her weight class. Milan has a Lady Macbeth, Anna Pirozzi, and she has exactly what is needed here in technical terms: heft, incisive phrasing, fluent dramatic coloratura, a blazing (if slightly strident) top, and fearlessness.

Pirozzi may be a little below her own best form here. The tone is grainier than I have heard it before, not as seamlessly knit, and the lower register provide a less solid foundation than ideal. She still has more than enough for success in the role, and her dramatic performance is effectively serious and mature, if not especially charismatic.

Francesco Meli greatly improves on his work in London. His timbre is plain, and there is no doing anything about that, but this time he is not in battle with a production that seems bent on upstaging him. One can better respond to his skillful handling of Jacopo’s music, his finely graded pianissimi, scrupulous articulation, care for words. He makes a noble, upright figure of this hopeless case, in his puffy shirt and mournful, kohl-rimmed eyes.

When Meli and Pirozzi join for the harp-backed conclusion of the curiously structured marital duet, the soprano, tenor and conductor achieve something nearly miraculous. You know there are more beautiful things to hear, but for a few minutes, it may not seem so. The three of them, and the fine orchestra, make this movement sound like hope in music.

In the solar system of Verdi bass villains, Loredano is but a tiny, ice-covered satellite among the gas giants. Who is this Loredano? What do we know about him? Andrea Concetti is not the first to be unable to make much of what little music there is (no less than Samuel Ramey seemed just to be passing through on a Philips recording), but his is a quality bass of the gray rather than black variety. Concetti acts the part well, suggesting dangerous ambition as well as mean-spirited glee in his enemies’ downfall. He is memorable in the final tableau, arms outstretched, eyes skyward, making a “Thank you, God!” face as Francesco expires.

Now we come to the reason most people either will be interested in this DVD or will avoid it no matter what I say of the rest. A dark-toned tenor often described as having a “baritonal” sound is not a baritone. When the years pile up and such a tenor’s top has eroded so that even transposed tenor parts are not feasible, he still is not a baritone. Therefore, even the best performance Domingo gives in his present incarnation will be a fundamental compromise, and I could not call his broadcast performances of the baritone parts in Trovatore and Ernani good by any standard.

Nevertheless, as I watched and listened to Domingo’s Milan Francesco Foscari, I thought of something blogged four years ago by our late contributor Albert Innaurato—not exactly a Domingo fan—in a review of a disc of Verdi baritone excerpts:

More arresting is the realization that Domingo really understands how this music should go. Whether he can give voice to that insight memorably has to be put to one side, but from vivid recitative, beautifully and meaningfully pronounced, to arias that have at least the right musical shape and emotion, he really does more than his rivals today. He belonged to the last generation that really felt this music and identified with the style; and he has survived as a demonstrator of what can be done…

All of that applies to the present performance. Domingo had been singing Foscari for four years by 2016, and either he had found his way around the part or he was in a period of vocal rejuvenation. One expects the average busy singer in his prime to have ups and downs. It stands to reason that a busy singer five decades into his career will too, and the lows will be lower than they used to be. But this time the breath line is longer, the emission has some of its old firmness, and there are the usual points for style.

There is also greater verbal clarity than there had been in London, without recourse to the “hot potato” sound I have often noticed in recent years, which makes consonants indistinct. Several weeks past celebrating his 75th birthday, Domingo has the most distinctive and compelling basic sound of anyone on this stage. It really is something to marvel at that this much remains intact, this far along.

And so, unlike Loredano and the Giunta in the opera’s final scene, I grant respect to the “gray-haired warrior” who faces a gathering chorus urging him to step aside, take the rest he has earned, enjoy a life of ease with loved ones.

If I were to say that this performance on the whole has special distinction at the levels of acting, singing and stage direction, you would be within rights not to take me seriously when I write about something that does. It is worth seeing on its terms. Everyone comes to it with the right ideas, scenes play out with the important points plausibly made, and an opera of modest beauty gets a performance of modest beauty. When it is over, we have seen greatness: Verdi’s. And maybe no chorus on earth is better than La Scala’s for making a massed whisper seem a poisonous dart between the eyes.

Former Vienna State Opera intendant Ioan Holender hosts an odd 15-minute bonus feature. The power player turned personality makes his way around La Scala lobbing softballs to Domingo, Meli, Hermanis and Scala boss Alexander Pereira. No great insights are shared, other than Signor Pereira’s observation that the tenor role is the hardest of the three principal ones to cast well.

Holender and Domingo spend some time watching videos from Domingo’s tenor prime, including Pagliacci, Fedora and Andrea Chénier, and Domingo’s last words to his interviewer are “There’s still a lot to come.” No doubt there is. Francesco Foscari ultimately must relent, but for the singer who has taken him up as a septuagenarian signature role, for as long as offers and audiences keep coming, perhaps the Doge’s defiant words are true: no earthly power will move him.

  • Camille

    Very apt and eloquent. Complimenti!!!

  • PATRICK MACK

    “In the solar system of Verdi bass villains, Loredano is but a tiny, ice-covered satellite among the gas giants.”
    Porgy you are KILLING ME. I also love how Switzerland you are about Domingo when so many others are like,”Get the Hook!”
    I enjoy Foscari now and then although it is solemn to a fault. Such a well crafted review. I bow low.

    • Porgy Amor

      Thanks! I think my relief that this was pretty good comes through. When I opened the package and this was one of the things in it, I thought, “Geez, what am I going to say without copying and pasting myself from a year ago?” Not only the same Francesco but the same Jacopo. But it is a lot better.

      Not to spoil too much for the general readership, but I look forward to reading your own account of early Verdi, Hollywood style.

  • Porgy, your prose becomes more elegant with each piece. I appreciate your ability to highlight everything that is wrong with Bari-Domingo (and I agree with every word) while also appreciating the strengths he brings to the role. Also, I learned a few things about Due Foscari. Thanks!