In Search of the Two Foscaris

ItalyItaly Verdi, I Due Foscari. Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro dell’ Opera, Rome. Conductor, Riccardo Muti. Chorus master, Roberto Gabbiani. Stage director, Werner Herzog. Sets and Costumes, Maurizio Balò  8.3.2013 (JB)

Principals: Francesco Foscari, octogenarian Doge of Venice, Luca Salsi
Jacopo Foscari, his son, Francesco Meli
Lucrezia Contarini, Jacopo’s wife, Tatiana Serjan


Photos courtesy of Rome Opera 1.Lucrezia Contarini (Tatiana Serjan) with her children before the aged Doge (Luca Salsi).   .
Photos courtesy of Rome Opera
Lucrezia Contarini (Tatiana Serjan) with her children before the aged Doge (Luca Salsi).

At the world premiere of I Due Foscari (Teatro Argentina, Rome, 3 November 1844) the records show that the singers didn’t have much success. And no wonder. Verdi can usually be relied upon to challenge his singers. Not all his singers understand or meet that challenge. But that is another story. With the Foscaris it seems as though the challenge is not there. Riccardo Muti has the highest regard for the Russian soprano, Tatiana Serjan. And so do Rome audiences. Me too. The Serjan Lady Macbeth was memorable and I have no doubt that her Abigaille (Nabucco) with Muti in July will be equally impressive. But the role of Lucrezia Contarini in I Due Foscari not only fails to challenge her finest qualities: it exposes her weaknesses, which prior to this, the Romans didn’t know she had.

The musical construction of the first act is simplicity itself. We are introduced in three short scenes to the three main characters. Lucrezia (Serjan) comes second. Each scene follows the usual formula of accompanied recitative, aria and cabaletta. In the recitative, the Serjan voice (one of the biggest among today’s Verdi singers) rang loud and clear throughout the theatre. But it was impossible to know in which language she was singing. Even though we had surtitles, at one point, the projectionist of these, got lost as to where she was in the score. The lady has no Italian diction. In the aria she was in more serious trouble. This calls for some very controlled legato singing with impressive phrasing and beauty of sound. O Antonietta Stella please come back! Ms Serjan’s aria was lumpy and chopped up. She was on much safer ground when Verdi turns up the drama stakes in the cabaletta. And here she certainly makes an effect. Con slancia, said a senior Italian music critic sitting next to me: she throws herself into it would be a fair translation of that. And right he was too. Ha temperamento, the same critic added. That’s a tricky one to render into English: characterful comes near it. However, there is a great risk of a big voice going sharp when it engages these gears. And Ms Serjan’s did just that. It’s as though the composer wanted to underline all her possible weaknesses while ignoring her undisputed assets.

The plot, which is based on a Byron play, is a gloomy, grisly melodrama. The two Foscaris of the title are Francesco (the octogenarian Doge of Venice) and his son, Jacopo, who has been wrongly accused of a crime he didn’t commit and is therefore to be tried for treason and thence sent into exile, and so separated from his beloved wife, Lucrezia, and their two small children (non singing roles). The Council of Ten who are going to decide Jacopo’s fate are particularly grim and adept at fabricating evidence. (Verdi ups them to forty, to get all the men’s chorus on stage. And Maestro Muti slows the tempo, adding some twenty minutes to the usual performance time, just to drive these nasty points home.) To up the melodrama further there is also a plot to depose the aged Doge. It’s successful, of course. So Lucrezia is left at the end wailing over her husband’s suicide and her father-i-law’s death from a weary heart.

Francesco Meli’s voice is as reliable a tenor as you would find on an Italian stage. His opening number –Brezza del suol natio– in which he sings of his love for Venice, was moving. That is the aria of his scene. When he changes gear for the caballetta, to sing of his determination to prove his innocence, he began to force, which is something I have never heard him do. This didn’t therefore come across as convincing. It came across as vocally suicidal. And I again lay the charge at Verdi’s door. The composer who can be so thrillingly challenging to his singers has shown that he can also be inconsiderate and destructive. In the second act duet when Jacopo is in prison and visited by his agitated, anxious wife, both singers sounded as though they were in competition to see who could go off the rails the most. And please keep in mind that the fellow writing these words has an unstoppable enthusiasm for the early Verdi operas. I cannot, however, excuse the composer for these destructive lapses.

Luca Salsi came off best of the principals, as the aged Doge. His part is more sympathetically conceived. His opening aria (probably the score’s best known number) –O vecchio cor che batti– was most expressive in its pathos and brought a deserved round of applause. He tripped (vocally) in the agitation of the scene which follows with his daughter-in-law.

Werner Herzog’s production was minimalist in the black and grey sets and costumes of Maurizio Balò –a reflection of the grim plot. In the carnival scene of the last act they permitted themselves a very small splash of colour. But restraint was the order of the day here too. And the acrobats of this scene looked as though they had stepped onto the stage after a booze-up. And no, I fear this was not unintentional humour, just lack of professional direction.

The opera’s performance time is usually given as one hour thirty-five minutes. But with Maestro Muti’s emphatic slower tempi it clocked up nearer to two hours. In addition there were two intervals, each of half an hour: so almost as much interval as show time.

Jack Buckley