‘The Two Foscari’
By Giuseppe Verdi
With Placido Domingo, Marina Poplavskaya, and Francesco Meli
Directed by Thaddeus Stassberger
Conducted by James Conlon
LA Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Through Oct. 9, 2012
LA Opera opens its 25th season with Verdi’s rarely heard early work, “The Two Foscari.” Though some audience members were heard to grumble “Why this?” there is something refreshing about an unfamiliar work by a beloved master. Verdi’s music is always accessible. “Foscari” is no exception. What this LA Opera production excels in is voices, some of the most glorious and memorable I have had the pleasure hearing.
The opera is based on the true story of an 84-year-old, 15th-century Venetian Doge, Francesco Foscari (Placido Domingo); the discontents of his government who want to wrest power from him; and his son, Jacopo Foscari (Francesco Meli), who is wrongly accused of a capital offence. There are elements of the story that ring timeless such as the Council of Ten, resplendent in red satin against the dismal background of the set; their judgment is the last word. They condemn the young Jacopo to permanent excel on Crete despite his protestations of innocence. Jacopo’s wife, Lucrezia Contarini (the magnificent Marina Poplavskaya), pleads first with Jacopo’s father, who recognizes he is powerless against the combined forces of the Senate and the Council of Ten, and then directly with the Council itself. Her pleas fall on the deaf ears of the Council, though they are borne to us on her vibrant soprano, which projects with the power usually associated with a mezzo or alto. You could only wish she could find someone else to plead with so we in the audience would be able to hear more.
Conceptually, director Thaddeus Strassberger has set “Foscari” in an indeterminate time, and (with the possible exception of a disappointing carnival scene) an indeterminate, cavernous place. Anyone who has wandered a back canal of Venice, late at night, has a sense of the “silence and mystery” Verdi refers to, and a sense of the inevitable decay. For Verdi, Venice was a definite character in this opera. It is almost as though Strassberger forgot to cast that part, though he did brilliantly with the human casting. Scenic Designer Kevin Knight’s heavy plaster walls could be the tombs of anywhere. There are appealing dramatic touches such as the cage in which Jacopo is imprisoned and which rises and lowers above the stage, and a large bridge suspended above from which the senate (the full throated LA Opera chorus) proclaims. But the production lacks even a breath of Venice. All in all it is an abstracted presentation lacking abstract sensibility. Mattie Ullrich’s costumes are more successful. The opulent excesses of the rich red robes of the Council of Ten and the commanding gowns of Lucrezia Contarini — carried off with style by Poplavskaya — contrasting against the grim gray of the senate operatives and the bleak background are very effective.
But back to the voices. That is where this story lies. Placido Domingo’s journey into the baritone realm is completely successful. Act III of “Foscari” is essentially the failing Doge’s death scene. Placido’s rich tones and confident range mesmerize. Throughout, the duets and the trios soar against James Conlon’s supportive yet powerful orchestral accompaniment.
I probably would not have sought out an opera I had never heard of. But that would have been a mistake. This rarely presented opera — the last major American production was forty years ago — is certainly worth the effort. It is rare to hear music so richly performed. All in all, a thoroughly satisfying evening at the opera, my thoughts on the staging notwithstanding.