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One of the great advantages of having Placido Domingo as the general director of your opera company is that he can generally get Placido Domingo to star in one of your productions each year.
The all but ageless virtuoso’s commanding turn in the central baritone role of Verdi‘s seldom-staged The Two Foscari is certainly the most compelling component of the Los Angeles Opera’s season opener for its six-show 2012-13 season, which began Saturday night. In fact, it’s a solid presentation all around, from the singing by tenor Francesco Meli and soprano Marina Poplavskaya, in the other two important roles, to the stage images, such as hoisting up a Venetian prisoner in a cage as Orson Welles did with Iago in his film of Othello, created by director Thaddeus Strassberger in his LA Opera debut.
However, if a work by a composer of Verdi’s eminence hasn’t been performed anywhere in the United States since 1972, there’s probably a good reason for its scarcity, and in this case that would be the thuddingly undramatic, repetitive and in all ways clunky libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, who not only should have known better but did, as proven by his work with Verdi on Rigoletto, La Traviata, Simon Boccanegra and La Forza del Destino, among their 10 considerable collaborations.
The Two Foscari, Verdi’s sixth opera, written in 1844, is essentially a three-act lament over legal injustice and fate’s unfairness by three characters: Francesco Foscari, the old Doge of Venice, in his 34th years in power in 1457; his only surviving son, Jacopo, about to be sentenced on possibly trumped up charges of murder and treason, and Jacopo’s wife Lucrezia, with whom he has three young children. Based on an 1821 play of the same name by Lord Byron, the opera does not stray from historical truth by much and was still considered so politically touchy at the time that it was premiered in Rome rather than in the northern city in which it is set, despite the fact that Piave was the stage manager of La Fenice in Venice.
In Act One, the nefariously duplicitous Venetian Council of Ten, acting with alleged clemency, has already banished Jacopo to exile on Crete rather than death. In Act Two, he has been transferred from his cage to a torture rack but his fate remains the same and his loved ones come to bid farewell. In Act Three, Jacopo is led through revelries in the Piazza San Marco, no doubt to rub in the fun he’ll be missing, and is, at length, obliged to embrace the fate he regards as worse than death in Venice.
The suffering expressed by the three most affected parties is intense and unabated. Given the lack of the betrayals, revelations, manipulations, romantic unions and separations and assorted highs and lows that so melodramatically enliven most popular 19th century Italian operas, The Two Foscari proceeds in a lower gear and essentially lives or dies on the strength of the music of any given moment. On this score, the new staging, co-produced by the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia, the Theater an der Wien and London’s Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, delivers ample satisfaction.
At the outset, Meli, in his local debut, and the Russian Poplavskaya, well remembered locally for her La Traviata in 2009, seemed slightly out of synch on opening night, which made Domingo’s still effortless ability to vocally fill the hall all the more evident once he made his entrance. Brooding, with long gray hair and a generally stricken demeanor reflecting a powerful man’s sudden fall from eminence, the lifelong tenor, now 71, seemed in an absolute comfort zone in this substantial but not madly demanding baritone role and delivered a richly satisfying performance that elicited sustained ovations from the patron and donor-laden crowd after his arias and duets, as well as at the curtain call. The younger singers rapidly gained in strength in subsequent scenes to pair well with their illustrious co-star.
Even though there are no Verdian greatest hits in this score, which is consistently listenable but tends to look ahead to future triumphs rather than offering one itself, there are opportunities seized among the “woe is me” lyrics by the three leads to make some potent musical and emotional connections along the way. In the grandest scenes, Strassberger has arrayed more than 60 people across the stage, including praying nuns in dazzling white, Venetian nobles in black and the Council of Ten in Vatican-hued red. Much use was made of suspended metal walkways, wooden-planked promenades that could double as piers, plausibly enough in Venice, and starkly simple backdrops creating a pleasingly unified but not opulent physical impression.
James Conlon led the orchestra through a clean and vigorous evening in the pit. But in a second-tier piece like this, you need at least one star onstage to justify putting it on. Fortunately, this production has one that still burns brightly and possibly two more in the ascendant, which makes it more than worth a look and especially a listen.
Venue: LA Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (through October 9)
Music: Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto: Francesco Maria Piave, based on the historical play by Lord Byron
Cast: Placido Domingo, Francesco Meli, Marina Poplavskaya, Ievgen Orlov, Ben Bliss, Tracy Cox, Hunter Phillips, Omar Crook
Director: Thaddeus Strassberger
Conductor: James Conlon
Set designer: Kevin Knight
Costume designer: Mattie Ullrich
Lighting designer: Bruno Poet
170 minutes, including two 25-minute intermissions
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