Verdi (I) due Foscari
I due Foscari won a respectful hearing on the occasion of this rare revival in 1988, with a warm reception for its principal singer, Renato Bruson, and its veteran conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni. But it’s Attila for the big bravos. Spectacular and pacy, it fills the stage with barbarians, gives them good tunes to sing and places them in a busy world where every moment may bring a reversal of fortune. Moreover, the four leading characters are fired with passionate determination which in turn fires their magnificent voices. There is sure to be something to write home about after a good Attila.
And this is a La Scala performance fully worthy of the great house and its best traditions. It is very much the kind of opera that thrives in Muti’s care. A hard, percussive energy plays off against long elegiac phrases, and the resulting tension, very Italian with its sense of personal suffering in the midst of great public events, permeates the whole performance.
The singers match up to the challenge wonderfully well. Samuel Ramey’s iron-fisted voice is the perfect vocal image of the man, a voice with no flab, trained as by an athlete. The limitations are of tonal variety, in the dream sequence; but this is still a triumphant Attila. The soprano role of Odabella is as formidable as any in the Verdi canon, and Cheryl Studer masters it with astonishing assurance, and without the usual register-breaks and smudged scales. The tenor Kaludi Kaludov brings a clean, incisive tone and a well-schooled legato, and among all these foreigners Giorgio Zancanaro represents his country in its leading national opera house with a welcome infusion of Italian resonance and a reminder (intrusive aspirates apart) of the true vocal method of which Italy was for so long the fount. Moreover, these individual talents come together as a well-disciplined ensemble, and the concerted numbers have the authentic thrill of Italian opera in best working order.
I due Foscari could never achieve this kind of effect. In a way, that is to its credit: it is more subdued, with a finer focus brought to bear on its leading characters. But it, too, needs singers of a high order. The soprano role is less brilliant than that of Odabella but almost as demanding; and the tenor (Jacopo Foscari, the Doge’s imprisoned son) has to sing his way into our sympathies as surely as his father does. Both Linda Roark Strummer and Alberto Cupido have the notes and the technique, but they don’t have sufficiently beautiful voices: hence sympathy is limited. They don’t draw us to them by their sound. Bruson himself is often too imperfectly focused; it’s still a noble voice, and he acts with touching fidelity, but we can’t help wishing the firmness were more complete.
Both of these productions are well staged. I due Foscari remains vivid to the mind’s eye long afterwards as we still see the great flight of stairs, the old Doge making his laborious ascent, and sitting, a sadly isolated figure, in the seat of impotent authority. The spoils and smoke of battle set the scene for Attila, and here too is plenty to satisfy the eye without that too-much which distracts it. Sound is clear and well balanced, and the cameras seem invariably to be where they are wanted. The operas are still comparatively rare in performance: I’d feel strongly inclined to think seriously about both.