Arts & Events

New: West Edge Opera’s Concert Version of Verdi’s I DUE FOSCARI

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Tuesday May 05, 2015 - 01:41:00 PM

Giuseppe Verdi’s opera I due Foscari (The Two Foscaris) occupies a strange and unique place in my opera-going experience. It is – or was until yesterday – the only opera I once saw but never heard. In 2012, I attended a Los Angeles Opera performance of I due Foscari starring Placido Domingo in the baritone role of Doge Francesco Foscari. However, I had been swimming earlier in the day with my granddaughters at a Pasadena swimming pool, and my ears had become plugged so badly I couldn’t hear much at all. So when I attended I due Foscari that evening, the only voice I could faintly hear was that of soprano Marina Poplavskaya, who sang the role of Jacopo Foscari’s wife, Lucrezia; and she sounded to me as if she were miles away. All other voices went largely unheard. This was a huge disappointment to me, for this was my first opportunity to hear the rarely performed I due Foscari; and I wondered if I would ever get a second chance. 

Happily, West Edge Opera came along with a scaled-down concert version of I due Foscari, led by Music Director Jonathan Khuner at piano, with a violinist, cellist, and clarinetist. I attended the Monday evening, May 4, performance of I due Foscari at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage. (This opera was also given on Sunday, May 3, at Walnut Creek’s Rossmoor Center.) Verdi’s I due Foscari, which premiered at Rome’s Teatro Argentina in 1844, is set to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave based on a play of the same title by Lord Byron. The opera is set in 15th century Venice, and its plot, which revolves around the octogenarian Doge Francesco Foscari and his son Jacopo, is largely based on actual occurrences in the political intrigues of Venice.  

Although a distinguished Doge of many decades of service to Venice, the 86 year-old Francesco Foscari is powerless to help his son Jacopo, who is falsely accused on trumped-up charges by political rivals of the Foscari family. A member of Venice’s governing body, the Council of Ten, Jacopo Loredano, harbors a long-standing grudge against the Foscari family for an ill-founded belief that Francesco Foscari had many years ago ordered the murder of Loredano’s father and uncle. Loredano now leads the Council of Ten in condemning Francesco’s son, Jacopo, for his alleged murder of a noble named Donato. As evidence of Jacopo’s alleged treachery Loredano brandishes a letter Jacopo sent to the Lord of Milan asking for help in Jacopo’s efforts to return to Venice from his earlier exile. 

In the role of Doge Francesco Foscari, baritone Roy Stevens sang magnificently, his voice ringing out in robust tones with great emotional expressiveness. This is one of Verdi’s great roles for the baritone voice. Francesco’s first big aria, “O vecchio cor che batti” (“Oh, old beating heart”), consists of music of real character, establishing Francesco as a somewhat frail yet still vigorous statesman caught between his duties as Doge and his love and concern for his son. Here,and throughout this opera, Roy Stevens was brilliant in the role of Francesco Foscari. 

As Francesco’s son, Jacopo Foscari, tenor Michael-Paul Krubitzer also sang with great expressiveness. In Jacopo’s first big aria, delivered in a prison cell within the Doge’s Palace while awaiting a verdict that is certain to be against him, Jacopo sang of his love for Venice, and of his longing for Venice during his exile. Meanwhile, Jacopo’s wife Lucrezia, sung by soprano Melody King, proclaims her hatred of Loredano and his clique, then kneels in a prayer to God to save her husband and punish the treacherous conspirators. Although Miss King had some difficulties at first, she warmed up to the role and sang well thereafter. In the role of Loredano, baritone Paul Cheak acquitted himself admirably in what little music he is given to sing, most of which occurs in ensembles. Tenor Sigmund Seigel sang two brief roles – Senator Barbarigo and an unnamed officer of the Council of Ten. Finally, mezzo-soprano Ellen Presley sang the role of Pisana, a friend and confidante of Lucrezia.  

Near the end of Act I, Francesco, implored by Lucrezia to save his son and her husband, sings a moving duet with his daughter-in-law. In this duet, Roy Stevens and Melody King sang beautifully, their voices blending passionately. Act II opens with Jacopo in prison, where he becomes delirious and believes he sees a ghost. When his wife enters his cell, at first he fails to recognize her. When his father subsequently enters his cell, Jacopo is reassured of the support of his loved ones, who are convinced he is innocent. However, Francesco admits that as Doge, he must implacably enforce the decision of the Council of Ten.  

Nonetheless, Jacopo regains the courage to face either death or exile. A resounding trio ensues which celebrates the solidarity of this beleaguered family. However, the trio becomes a disquieting quartet when Loredano enters the cell and, relishing his vengeance, commands Jacopo to leave Venice without his wife and children and go into permanent exile alone. Here librettist Piave has added a scene not found in Byron’s play, one in which Lucrezia brings her two children into the Council Chambers in a vain effort to win the sympathy of the Ten. Jacopo then begs his father to look after the well-being of his children as he prepares to go into exile. Next a lively Barcarole is heard, sung by revelers and gondoliers celebrating a festa. Amidst this happy throng in the Piazza San Marco, Jacopo Foscari is led to the galley that will take him away into exile. Lucrezia bids her husband a final, emotional farewell. Jacopo boards the ship, which sails away. In a plot contrivance that is barely plausible, moments later Lucrezia bursts into Francesco’s room and tells him that Jacopo has died on board the ship as it left Venice. Francesco is heartbroken. Almost immediately after this tragic news, Loredano enters and announces that The Council of Ten demands the Doge’s abdication. At first, Francesco angrily refuses to abdicate. Eventually, he gives in. Now overwhelmed in sadness, Francesco sings, “Più figli, più trono, più vita non ho” (“No more sons, no more throne, no more life have I”). In heartbroken despair, Francesco dies, and the opera comes to a tragic end. 

In I due Foscari, Verdi explores two major themes that are dear to his heart. The first is paternal love; and the second is the exercise of statecraft and the effect on men of power. In this opera, these two issues are set in conflict with one another. In some ways, I due Foscari can be seen as a moderately successful trial run for Verdi’s later – and far more effective -- treatment of these conflicting themes in his Simon Boccanegra. In spite of its unrelentingly gloomy plot, however, I due Foscari has some fine music; and I am happy – at last – to have heard it.