VERDI I Due Foscari
Plácido Domingo could put it no better than Francesco Foscari, the decrepit and embittered Doge. ‘So this is the vile reward a white-haired warrior has earned!’ Foscari snarls in the third act of Verdi’s 1844 opera, as the faceless Venetian nobles demand his retirement. Domingo’s barnet may be more pepper-and-salt than white, but he has suffered a similar chorus of disapproval from many critics as he has determinedly laid siege to Verdi’s baritone repertoire.
Yet it is Domingo who makes this faltering production matter. Even if some reports suggested the live experience was less impactful, as filmed in the Royal Opera House in 2014 the Spanish tenor-baritone supplies the dramatic conviction that allows us to look beyond Thaddeus Strassberger’s faltering staging and into the soul of Foscari Snr. Domingo catches the enfeeblement and disillusionment of the character and his pleas to doomed, condemned son (Francesco Meli’s Jacopo Foscari), furious daughter-in-law (Maria Agresta’s Lucrezia) and the implacable cadre of Venetian oligarchs have the tang of authentic Verdian angst.
This score, too, deserves to be taken out of the connoisseurs’ drawers, at least when it is charged up by Antonio Pappano, who captures Verdi’s purple-blue tinta with more than a few frissons and adroitly highlights some startlingly chamber music like orchestration. True, there are too many handbrake turns from aria to rum-ti-rum cabaletta, and dramatic contours are few in a piece where the villain, Jacopo Loredano, is shadowy simply because Piave’s libretto never explains who he is or why he is so nasty. Maurizio Muraro can do little with the role, only partly because his extravagant beard, caught in close-up, clings so precariously to his face.
That’s a small detail but one that speaks to the bigger problems of Strassberger’s production, which has ideas but struggles to deploy them in a nuanced or dramatically persuasive way. Kevin Knight’s designs contrast abstract gantries and tilting chambers with murky videos of the Venetian lagoon; Mattie Ullrich’s costumes are 15th-century-ish (Alexander Borgia meets Alexander McQueen) and Bruno Poet’s lighting is either Stygian or cranked up to blazing spotlights. It’s a shouty show but actually says very little, and the frequent scenes of torture (cue the blackcurrant jam!) soon grow risible.
With Muraro muttering opaquely from the sidelines, this is really a three-person gig, and around Domingo there is excitement but also wildness from both Meli and Agresta. The tenor has the mettle for the part and phrases nicely, but the higher the voice goes, the more it drifts away from the note or spreads unattractively. Agresta would be happier in a less frenetic production and in less exposed music: Verdi wrote the part for the future Lady Macbeth but this is the sound of an increasingly stressed Luisa Miller.