Futile Foscari

18 Oct

I’ve yet to see the point of I due Foscari, which I foolishly attended at the ROH on 17th October.

I share Verdi’s mature view on it that it is just dull. First, there are acres of back story which aren’t adequately conveyed in the plot. The principal villain has about three lines and no opportunity to convey any motivation other than villainy and the opera seems to consist entirely of people bemoaning their fate and doing hardly anything about it.  There is absolutely nothing to make you interested in the plot, wonder what might happen next and there is no action which determines what happens next.  Friends who were seeing this for the first time raved about hearing ideas which Verdi was to do better later – fair enough, but that can’t compensate for the sheer monotony of the piece.  The musical use of the chorus may be interesting but it’s not remotely as exciting as, say, Nabucco or Macbeth. And there’s also an absence of any really exciting or interesting arias. Most of them are pleasant enough and do their job of conveying what the characters are thinking but you really imagine them appearing in any singer’s Verdi Favourites recital disc.

But for some reason, companies will do it. This is the fourth production here in the last 40 years. I’ve seen three of them: at Scottish (dull), the last ROH one (dull and silly) and this (dull and nasty). Did we need it? The ROH hasn’t done Ernani in living memory and that is at least fun. I’ve no great brief for I Lombardi, but Jerusalem hasn’t been staged in London in my memory and is the only Verdi that I haven’t seen. The last Luisa Miller was a disaster and another would be nice.  I’d love to see another Stiffelio, which at least has real interest and a decent plot, together with some really outstanding arias and ensembkes. Why not try staging Battaglia di Legnano, Corsaro, or even Giorno di Regno or Oberto?

The reason, of course, was that Placido Domingo felt that he owed the world his Francesco and what Mr Domingo wants, the opera houses of the world feel they have to provide – in this case Los Angeles, where he just happens to be in charge, Valencia, Vienna and London. He is a great artist and we owe him a lot and you can only admire his phenomenal energy and wonder how he manages to learn all those roles, conduct and run a couple of opera houses.  But exactly how much indulgence do we have to give him when he moves to roles for which his voice is patently unsuitable or where, as with some of Wagner roles, I’ve felt that he’s relied on the beauty of his voice over depth of characterisation?  I felt that he got away with Boccanegra because it provided an opportunity for him to deliver an outstanding characterisation in a really great opera and you could almost forget that the voice really doesn’t have the sort of qualities that Verdi was looking for.

Here, however, I really wondered what he was doing.  The timbre of his voice is just wrong for most Verdi baritone roles. Francesco needs something to contrast with Jacopo – a darker, deeper tone with different colours than Domingo can provide. It’s crying out for Hvorostovsky and, in an opera that needs all the help it can get, the absence of that was a major drawback. At this performance, Domingo seemed to me to sound his age. His first aria didn’t gather much applause and I don’t think this was because we were all moved by it. There was greater enthusiasm about the duet with Lucrezia and he did the prison scene decently enough. But it isn’t a role that gives him much to do dramatically and I felt that his presence actually made the opera seem even duller. I believe that he did his death scene well, but by that time I’d given up.

The rest were adequate to good. Francesco Meli, in particular, did some very fine things as Jacopo – delicate phrasing, not putting the voice under pressure and avoiding showmanship. He couldn’t avoid the role appearing lacrymose and dull but he did that very sympathetically.  It was particularly impressive that he was able to sing so well when being lowered from the flies in a very wobbly cage or being hoisted on a rope.  I felt that the role was at the edge of his capability but I’d like to hear him in more sympathetic circumstances as the Duke in Rigoletto, Nemorino or Edgardo. I wasn’t greatly taken by Daniela Agrosta as Lucrezia – rather an breathy, squally performance, I thought, with not much interesting to do. Maurizio Murraro was a very excellent Loredano even if I didn’t register who he was until the end of the second Act.

Pappano conducted. He secured excellent playing from the orchestra and fine singing from the chorus without actually making the piece sound remotely interesting or exciting.  Of course there are some good things in the opera but none of it interested me or made me feel that I was doing anything other than wasting my time.  This short piece felt very long indeed.

Thaddeus Strassberger directed as if he was aware that the action is pretty boring and took the usual director’s way out of giving us lots of other things to look at, except when Mr Domingo was on the stage.  This meant lots of prisoners being tortured nastily, councillors crossing the stage and a bevy of nuns in white.  What is it about this opera and nuns?  Everding’s production here in 1995 gave Lucrezia a bevy of them that followed her around wherever she went.  Apart from that, he did nothing to make the characters interesting or the piece itself dramatic.  The direction of the characters was pretty non-existent.  I blame the opera.  The costumes were in period and Kevin Knight’s set was ugly and we had the obligatory video designs for interludes which didn’t help much – and flashed up a puerile summary of the story so far that rather insulted our intelligence (“The serious crime of High Treason”).  I don’t think that there’s much you can do with this piece and Mr Strassberger didn’t convince me otherwise.

As I’ve suggested, I left at the interval at Act II.  I think I’ve seen this piece more than enough for this lifetime.

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