“The Two Foscari,” the sixth of Verdi’s more than two dozen operas, is a real rarity, not seen in the U.S. in a full-scale production in decades. It’s a real gem of a bel canto opera, and to LA Opera’s credit, this production delivers the two Foscaris needed for an exceptional evening of singing, Placido Domingo and Francesco Meli. Elsewhere, Verdi — even early om-pah-pah Verdi — deserves a bit better.
Director Thaddeus Strassberger possesses a genuine flair for the theatrical, and set designer Kevin Knight is there to provide it. Take the opening scene that has Jacopo Foscari (Meli) delivering his first aria swinging from a hanging cage as it is slowly lowered from the rafters into the bowels of the stage. The younger Foscari has been unjustly charged with treason and murder in old Venice, and his father (Domingo) is the doge who unwisely sides with the corrupt court out of some misguided sense of duty, much to the dismay of Jacopo’s wife (Marina Poplavskaya, a singer who starts strong but ends up ragged and off-pitch). That’s not an easy assignment for Meli, floating in midair. It’s understandable if a high note or two sounds not as full-bodied as this tenor’s middle-range, which is absolutely gorgeous. (LA Opera is on a real roll of finding young Italian tenors after last season’s debuts of Stefano Secco and Vittorio Grigolo, and now Meli.)
Domingo is introduced on a moving platform that is so severely raked that a nearby appears to be hanging on to a chair for dear life. Nonetheless, Domingo continues to be a vocal marvel after a 50-plus-year career, his voice sounding even more genuinely baritonial than in the recent “Simon Boccanegra.”
Opera is half art, half sport: Can the tenor hit the note? Will the soprano deliver the trill? But Strassberger and Knight offer a whole new dimension: Will they get through the perf without breaking a leg? Meanwhile, an awkwardly angled Bridge of Sighs ominously hovers overhead, and Mattie ullrich’s elegant costumes bring a touch of Transylvania to the proceedings.
Apparently for Strassberger, Verdi’s tragedy of a father choosing state over family is not enough. At opera’s end, he adds a bit of Grand Guignol where Jacopo’s vengeful wife drowns her own son so that papa Foscari is totally without a male heir. It’s a scene that defines theatrical overkill.
James Conlon, keeping the om-pah-pah to a minimum, goes right for the musical jugular and leaves undue subtlety to the next time he conducts “Otello.”
Footnote: The LA Opera audience has this uncouth curtain-call habit of booing the opera’s villain, in this case the perfectly respectable Ievgen Orlov. It’s grossly unfair to the singer.