Verdi’s sixth opera, I due Foscari, is probably not well known to many readers so a brief description may be in order. It’s a rather grim tale of injustice and revenge. Francesco Foscari is the aged Doge of Venice. His son, Jacopo, has been stitched up by the family rival Jacopo Loredano and exiled to Crete. He returns to try and clear his name but is fitted up again. This time for the murder of one Donato. Despite torture he refuses to confess and is sentenced to return to exile in Crete. The first three quarters of the opera is mostly either father or son bemoaning their fate (Francesco has already lost three sons. Lady Bracknell would be unimpressed) or Lucrezia, Jacopo’s wife, pleading for mercy to anyone who will listen. Then there’s a final scene where Francesco receives proof of his son’s innocence, closely followed by news of his death, closely followed by news that the Council and Senate are sacking him. Loredano gloats. Foscari dies. Structurally it’s very much a “numbers” opera with a succession of short scenes mostly featuring various combinations of the three Foscaris and the chorus. There are a lot of quite sophisticated ensemble pieces as well as a couple of solo arias for each of the principals. It’s musically rather distinguished in fact. The three Foscari roles are big sings. Nobody else has much to do.
In 2015 La Scala decided to mount a production with Placido Domingo as the elder Foscari; quite possibly the first age appropriate role since turning baritone. Alvis Hermanis was hired to direct. The production is clever and quite satisfying without ever trying to probe the material too deeply. It’s set quite literally in Venice during the Renaissance. Hermanis uses a kind of receding perspective light box to provide some depth and backdrops and scrims to shield the deeper parts of the stage when necessary. This allows, with fairly minimal props, for seamless scene changes and a distinct “look” for each scene. I believe it was actually run through as a single act in the house though that hardly matters on disk. The backdrops and costumes are painterly in a sort of autumnal palette. There’s lots of Venetian imagery; winged lions, gondoliers etc. The chorus is used almost as a structural element and good use is made of the young men of the La Scala ballet school. The overall effect is quite pleasing if a little old fashioned.
With the production being pretty much a backdrop in the old manner much depends on the singing and acting. The singing is uniformly excellent. Domingo is in good voice and the part is not a demanding high Verdi baritone. Francesco Meli, as the younger Foscari, is a top notch old style Verdi tenor. It’s all there; the ringing high notes and the tendency sometimes to overegg it! Anna Pirozzi, as Lucrezia, is powerful, accurate and easy on the ear. The acting isn’t quite as good. Meli and Pirozzi both lean too heavily on stock operatic acting gestures. Domingo though shows rather more range and is genuinely affecting in the final scene. The chorus is excellent. Michele Mariotti conducts a dramatic and enjoyable account of the score.
There’s an eighteen minute bonus track with Ioan Holländer interviewing various people. It’s mostly a hagiography of Domingo but it does give some insight into Hermanis’ philosophy which can best be expressed as “putting on a show/spectacle”.
Video direction is by Tiziano Mancini and it’s very good. I think one gets an experience quite close to a live performance from this recording. On Blu-ray it’s technically excellent too. Picture quality is very good and both sound tracks; stereo and DTS-HD MA surround, are vivid and clear. The booklet contains a short essay, a track listing and a synopsis. Subtitle options are English, Italian, French, German, Spanish, Korean and Japanese.
All in all, a very watchable, well filmed, version of a comparative rarity.