Georja: The Two Foscari (I due Foscari) by Giuseppe Verdi is now playing at the LA Opera with none other than the maestro, Placido Domingo himself, in the title role. This is a smashing performance and production in every way. Kudos to the LA Opera for dragging out a little seen piece of Verdi for all to enjoy and creating such a total masterpiece with the production, and to director Thaddeus Strassberger for putting it all together.
Gerald: The Two Foscari tells the story of the Doge, ruler of Venice in the 1400s, and his son, who has been trapped in political intrigues and accused of crimes against the state. The father, Francesco Foscari (Placido Domingo) is an old man, having held power for an amazing thirty-four years. But he is answerable to the supreme dictates of the Council of Ten, whose judgments are deemed to be infallible. The son, Jacopo (Francesco Meli), is an ambitious hothead who has been exiled to Crete by the Council and now returns to undergo torture and stand judgment on a charge he trumped up himself just so he could come home to see his wife and children one more time. It’s not a complicated plot: Jacopo’s wife Lucrezia (Marina Poplavskaya) pleads with the Doge to defy the Council to save Jacopo. But even though he claims to love his son, the old politician is unswerving in what he sees as his duty to the state.
Georja: The musical sequences and lyrical pieces are vigorous and exciting. The orchestra conducted by John Conlon is in top form. There are haunting choral numbers of all male chorus and then all female members . There are fantastic duets with Domingo and Meli as his son. Meli is handsome and his voice is strong and lyrical. I especially enjoyed hearing arias sung by a true Italian who adds all the tiny vocal flourishes and trills.
And to top off the musical feast we are treated to Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya who hit the opera scene with a big splash in 2006 and hasn’t looked back. She is a powerhouse who perfectly balances the almost entirely male cast and enchants with her arias and duets. I would say she is the operatic equivalent of Meryl Streep and Hillary Clinton put together in a young and beautiful form. Her voice is so strong. And our dear Domingo is also powerful in his 150th role – the most of any tenor ever and still going strong.
The staging is original, brilliant, and haunting. Congratulations to scenic designer Kevin Knight. It is a dark and dank feeling like the dark story it holds and the dank feelings of a water town of Venice. And at the same time it is a tribute to Venice, the most powerful city state of its time in 1457. The pervading imagery of the ocean with all its unstoppable strength echoes the themes of the play.
Gerald: This story is creepy and fraught with malevolence, and this new Los Angeles production is literally dark and unrelentingly gloomy. The result is a palpable chill up the spine and a reminder of just how stunning only opera can be. The bizarre and imaginatively conceived sets are a maze of crosswalks and bridges set at odd angles, along with ironclad torture chamber and a nightmarish carnival demon, a gigantic Satan’s head. The chilling effect is driven home in one tableau after another as our spectacular LA Opera chorus serves alternately as the stately and implacable ruling class and then as the crazed carnival rabble cavorting in the street.
Georja: The costumes are exquisite thanks to costumer Mattie Ullrich. The aristocratic dresses, especially, truly looked to be museum pieces. Tall lanky blonde Marina was like a beautiful peacock on the stage in her flowing yet very specifically period gowns. The chorus was startling in its Inquisition-like robes and the nuns were an image in their eccentric looking habits.
Gerald: Georja has commented that this production is masterful and flawless, and I agree completely. The puzzling topic is the story itself, and unfortunately Giuseppe Verdi isn’t around to give an interview. (We’d also want to invite Lord Byron, who wrote the historical play on which it is based.) It’s not just the simplicity of the doomed plot that’s striking, but the almost total lack of moral choice or action. The Doge insists on holding to his duty to the state, and shameful death is the result for both he and his son. The infallible state goes on, no respecter of persons no matter how influential, and we’re reminded that human societies ultimately will do whatever is necessary to perpetuate themselves
Georja: I Due Foscari, for all its many charms, is an opera which has been rarely mounted. In a way, it’s not hard to see why. The story of a powerful doge whose son is exiled by decree of the “Council of Ten.” And he feels he is powerless to help his son. So committed is he to his role as political leader that it sabotages his paternal and human feelings. As a person who does not courageously speak out and let the chips fall where they may, he disappoints. Although he is passionate, he seems tepid.
And yet if one examines the culture and history of the time where the Council’s law is considered “infallible” and the impotence that can inflict on a personal level, one can imagine the feeling of unstoppable fate that was prevalent at the time. Like a Greek tragedy. And yet to a modern audience we want to root for the Doge to do whatever it takes to save his son.
Gerald: There is no romantic hero here to inspire us or to take bold new action. Fate has a lock on our lives, and all we can do is sing songs of lament. The Foscaris are historical figures, and no doubt Verdi’s audience in the 1840s had been taught this legacy in school. Perhaps they better understood the price and the consequences of authoritarian rule. To a modern audience, it’s both baffling and infuriating. Stirring those emotions is the essential thrill of experiencing this rarely performed opera.
Georja: Since the doge is not heroic, it makes for a less cut and dry and a more interesting character. It requires some thinking to understand where he is coming from. As such it is also a more complex piece than one would think. I for one am fully grateful to be able to go on this operatic journey and give full recommendation for it.
Georja Umano is an actor and animal advocate.
Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels.
The Two Foscari by Giuseppe Verdi
Sun 9/23/12 2:00PM: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Sat 9/29/12 7:30PM: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Sun 10/7/12 2:00PM: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Tue 10/912 7:30PM: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion