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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 get Placido Domingo to star in one of your productions. The all but ageless virtuoso’s commanding turn in the central baritone role of Giuseppe Verdi’s seldom-staged The Two Foscari is the most compelling component of the Los Angeles Opera’s season opener for its six-show 2012-13 season, which began Sept. 15.
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 L.A. Opera debut.
However, if a work by a composer of Verdi’s eminence hasn’t been performed in the United States since 1972, there’s probably a reason. In this case it would be the thuddingly undramatic and 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 and La Forza del Destino.
Foscari, Verdi’s sixth opera, written in 1844, is a three-act lament over legal injustice and fate’s unfairness by three characters: Francesco Foscari, the old Doge of Venice, in his 34th year in power in 1457; his son, Jacopo, about to be sentenced on possibly trumped-up charges of murder and treason; and Jacopo’s wife, Lucrezia. Based on an 1821 play of the same name by Lord Byron, the opera does not stray from historical truth by much and was considered so politically touchy at the time that it was premiered in Rome instead of the northern city in which it is set.
In Act One, the duplicitous Venetian Council of Ten has banished Jacopo to exile on Crete. In Act Two, he has been transferred from his cage to a torture rack. In Act Three, Jacopo is led through revelries in the Piazza San Marco and is obliged to embrace the fate he regards as worse than death in Venice.
Given the lack of the revelations, manipulations, romantic unions, separations and assorted highs and lows that so melodramatically enliven most popular 19th century Italian operas, Foscari proceeds in a lower gear and essentially lives or dies on the strength of the music. 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.
Meli, in his local debut, and the Russian Poplavskaya, well remembered locally for her La Traviata in 2009, seemed slightly out of sync on opening night, which made Domingo’s still effortless ability to vocally fill the hall all the more evident. The lifelong tenor, now 71, seemed in an absolute comfort zone in this substantial but not madly demanding baritone role and elicited sustained ovations from the crowd. The younger singers rapidly gained in strength in subsequent scenes to pair well with their illustrious co-star. Though there are no Verdian greatest hits, there are opportunities seized by the three leads to make some potent 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 promenades that could double as piers 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. This production has one that still burns brightly and possibly two more ascendant, which makes it worth a look and especially a listen.
Venue Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (through Oct. 9)
170 minutes, including two 25-minute intermissions
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