I due Foscari (ROH, 27 October 2014)
Wiki informs us that “Foscari is revived occasionally and its fortunes have been helped by the interest taken by tenor Plácido Domingo in singing baritone roles.” – And since our interest lies with him, we put up with his whimsical choices. Right, I went to see him as the living legend he is and was quite entertained in the end.
Francesco Foscari: Plácido Domingo
Jacopo Foscari: Francesco Meli
Lucrezia Contarini: Maria Agresta
Jacopo Loredano: Maurizio Muraro
Barbarigo: Samuel Sakker
Pisana: Rachel Kelly
Fante: Lee Hickenbottom
Servant: Dominic Barrand
Conductor: Antonio Pappano | Chorus and Orchestra of the ROH
I was a teenager when the whole Three Tenors thing was in its heyday and I self-righteously scoffed at it all 😉 At this point, though, I’ve changed my tune. Even back then I thought – since I had to have an opinion on everything – Domingo was the coolest of the three. The fact that the man is still going might prove my point.
Verdi is very hit-and-miss with me but this is a fairly early work, still of the belcanto type. I can work with it. It’s not top-notch Verdi, all the arias seem to miss a je ne sais quoi, but it doesn’t drag. It might help that it’s not particularly long.
Pappano started really loud, which made me initially apprehensive: if we start that loud, how much louder will it get? But it seems like either the overture is the loudest bit or I got used to it. Since it’s belcanto-y, there are many chunks where the score isn’t very dense and there are enough recit breaks. But back to the overture: aside from being very loud, it was very dramatically rendered by Maestro and orchestra. I liked it, there’s a lot of menace and foreboding going on.
The plot is straight forward: Francesco Foscari is the Doge of Venice. In order to keep things really democratic, there is a Council of Ten whose decisions the Doge can’t override. Jacopo Loredano (one of the Ten) is sung by a bass, so you know he’s the bad guy. Oh yea. Right from the get-go we see him lurking about. He wants to depose Francesco. In order to do so, he schemes to have his only surviving son, Jacopo Foscari, accused of treason and murder. As there is (false) evidence, Francesco, a just man, who has put his life in the service of Venice, can’t save his son, even though he believes he’s innocent. Long story short, the bad guys win, both Foscari end up dead, god help Jacopo’s widow and her three young boys.
Even before the performance started there was a wavy sea projection which I enjoyed as I had forgot my camera, my mobile and anything to write or read and I was very busy twiddling my thumbs counting how many people older than Domingo himself were in the house. I stopped at 925 😉 Let it be said that the house was properly full, not just “full”. And there are two more shows to go.
This production is traditional and lavish in ways only big opera houses can afford. But it’s a show all right, complete with jesters and fire breathers. The main set looks like a cave or some sort of underground Masonic temple. The floor level retractable bridges greatly improved the view for us sat in “restricted view” seats, to the point that all important action was visible at all times. I guess the “cave” idea says something about life and death decisions made behind the scenes.
On to the singing: Domingo, of course, sang the title role, which is a sort of Lucrezia Borgia for baritones. I’d never seen him live before and in fact have heard him on record (or mp3) only here and there, as he’s excellent in a repertoire I’m not particularly fond of. I did like him in that Cavalleria rusticana film and tried to listen to his Otello recording but couldn’t stand the music. I saw him in The Enchanted Island but a Baroque singer he’s not, especially not these days. Long story short, I came in as a Domingo novice.
Well… his baritone reminds me of dark mezzos venturing in contralto territory. All’s fine until you hear a real contralto, then you go “oh…”. However, the top notes – those sound damn fine even now. Really made me wish I could’ve heard him live 30 years ago. He does have a gorgeous tone even now and it’s so expressive… I don’t want to be a sycophant but he did pretty much sing the young people off the stage. My reaction to him was similar to seeing Derek Jacobi as Lear: look at this chap at the end of his career, the enormous amount of experience he’s amassed. On top of, you know, being very talented to begin with. People like these are in a league of their own. They just make it look so easy. Whatever he tried to do, dramatically or musically, worked. Except for the baritone thing 😉
Like I said, the arias weren’t all that, but the role gave him enough dramatically to sink his teeth into. When Francesco learned that his son was dead, Domingo sounded so properly broken I almost burst into tears. As Bellini said, you know you’ve done your job when you made them cry. It’s that kind of repertoire: so terribly melodramatic! For instance, Jacopo is sentenced to exile to Crete and he immediately despairs. Why? He could’ve plotted ways to return or bring his family with him or plan his revenge.
Let’s look at Jacopo a bit. It’s not for nothing that I was talking about Lucrezia Borgia. Like Gennaro, Jacopo is a curiously “wet” kind of character. He’s pretty much just hard done by, something usually saved for sopranos. He suffers a lot, is a good son, husband and father and dies innocently. Pobrecito! All this whilst his wife keeps foaming at the mouth about revenge and tries her best to do something – anything – which usually amounts to bursting uninvited in male-only areas. Interesting. But we know sopranos can’t win in 19th century operas. This one at least does not die but loses quite a bit by the end of the opera.
It might be because Jacopo is such a meh character that initially I was totally underwhelmed by Francesco Meli’s singing. He was into it, but came off a bit short, a bit lacklustre. He did eventually grow on me somewhat – or perhaps he didn’t get any worse. Unfortunately he had Domingo’s top notes and general artistry to compete with. He got a lot of applause, so I was clearly in minority.
Maria Agresta as Lucrezia Contarini (Jacopo’s willful wife) came off a lot better. Her top notes were very beautiful, though the low ones were rather veiled. She was definitely committed as the furious wife who is so desperate she won’t bow down to authority anymore (by 19th century standards) and had quite a bit to sing, which came off very consistent. But, like I said, sharing the stage with a legend is a damn tall order. Her duets with Domingo were ok but not all that. Maybe it’s experience.
Maurizio Muraro’s coldly scheming Loredano got boos at curtain call – for being so damn evil. He was very gracious about that and then got lots of applause – for being so damn evil. And he was; in the last scene, when he wants to get Francesco Foscari’s ceremonial cape off him, he had just the right amount of rapacious edge.
It was the Domingo show all right. I don’t know how he does it, but it’s still worth seeing him, especially for us youngins who were playing in the sandbox when he was at the absolute top of his game. More importantly, seeing him made me think I need to look up his old recordings.