One Foscari Better Than the Other

SpainSpain G. Verdi, I Due Foscari: Soloists, Valenciana Community Orchestra, Generalitat Valenciana Chorus, Omer Meir Wellber (conductor), Palau de Les Arts, Valencia (JMI)

New Production Palau de Les Arts in coproduction with Los Angeles Opera, Theater an der Wien and Covent Garden.

Direction: Thaddeus Strassberger
Sets: Kevin Knight
Costumes: Mattie Ullrich
Lighting: Bruno Poet

Francesco Foscari: Plácido Domingo
Jacopo Foscari: Ivan Magri
Lucrezia Contarini: Guanqun Yu
Loredano: Gianluca Buratto
Barbarigo: Mario Cerdá
Pisana: Marina Pinchuk

I due Foscari Palau de les Arts, with Domingo somewhere on it
Picture courtesy Palau de Les Arts Valencia, © Tato Baeza

I Due Foscari was the sixth opera composed by Giuseppe Verdi and was his second collaboration with librettist Piave. I find it one of Verdi’s best from “the galley years”, but it is one of the least performed, probably due to the influence of its weak and predictable plot.

In Spain it has been performed rarely, most recently in Bilbao (2008, S&H review here) and Las Palmas (2011). This production in Valencia commemorates the bicentennial of Verdi’s birth, and features Placido Domingo, who only added the character of Francesco Foscari (the 140th of his career) last September in Los Angeles in this same production.

Thadeus Strassberger is content simply to narrate the story of the Foscari (15th century Venetians), placed in its historical setting. The sets are limited to a platform in the middle of the stage, with the scene changes indicated by adding modules and props. Behind this was a permanent bridge, on which extras and members of the chorus appeared every so often. Least convincing of the stage production is the last scene, placed in the bedroom of the Doge instead of the Council Chamber.

The costumes are very appealing, always in red, black or white (apart from those for Lucrezia Contarini) and the dark and gloomy atmosphere allows imaginative lighting. A production, all said, that is neither problematic, nor attractive, nor interesting.

Omer Meir Wellber conducted with so much energy that it sometimes seemed excessive. On more than one occasion the volume was ill-judged, especially in the ensembles, and there were some coordination problems in the first act between stage and pit. The orchestra again proved its quality, although the sound was not equal to that achieved under Riccardo Chailly last December. (S&H review here.)

The cast disappointed: None of the three main characters had voices well suited to the roles they were singing. The Doge Francesco Foscari is one of the greatest characters to sing for a true Verdi baritone. Placido Domingo is not, however, a true Verdi baritone. His miraculous vocal freshness (at 72!) and unequaled status in the history of opera notwithstanding, Mr. Domingo is still a tenor, just without the top notes and this rôle a poor fit. Whereas his exceptional artistry helped him perform most moving Simon Boccanegra, the feat was not repeated here. In his grand finale he lacked emotion, simply because his voice is not appropriate to the demands of the character.

In the first two acts there was a shortage of contrast between the voices and Domingo was virtually inaudible in the main concertante. At least he knows that he is not a baritone and he never tries to be one, always singing, as he does in an easily appreciated, very natural way. Perhaps not a disappointing performance in the end, but also not a thrilling one.

The character who has to sing the most is Jacopo Foscari, a rôle for a spinto tenor who is also no stranger to belcanto. Ivan Magri is a light lyric tenor, as we could hear in his performance in this same theatre as the Duca di Mantova. He tries to darken his voice, but he can only achieve one continuous sound, which results in monotonous singing. In Los Angeles, Francesco Meli sang this character and although his vocal characteristics are similar, his singing was better by far. Not Magri’s fault, but one of unfortunate casting.

Something similar can be said of Guanqun Yu, a lyric soprano who lacks the range for a character like Lucrezia Contarini. Her middle range is not strong enough for the character, with serious shortfalls in the low notes where she is practically inaudible. The best part of her voice is the top register, which is remarkable in the ensembles, but the lack of color in her voice makes boring listening. She would be a very good in different repertoire. The most important voice, although not the best, was that of Gianluca Buratto as Jacopo Loredano, who did well. This character does not demand nobility in the voice so the range and character suited this Italian bass.

This was the premiere of the opera in Valencia but despite Plácido Domingo heading the cast, the Palau de Les Arts was not even at 90% of its capacity—and that after steep last minute discounts on tickets.

José Mª Irurzun