Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

It Takes Two

September 16, 2012

Placido DOmingo and Marina Poplavskaya Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2012
How many Foscari does it take to screw in a light bulb? This is just one of dozens of questions left unanswered in Verdi’s I due Foscari (The Two Foscari), an early relative rarity that has made its way to the stage of Los Angeles Opera for the opening of the 2012/2013 season this weekend. And while the opera isn’t a comedy, it is in need of just such a punch line to spice up one of the more tepid season openers in Los Angeles in quite a while. Foscari is LA Opera’s big ticket production of the season. It’s the only new production and the only off the beaten path offering for a company still being careful about its footing in these turbulent economic waters. The reason for the show’s existence right now is much easier to answer. LAO General Director Placido Domingo is the star, and the opera features a juicy baritone role for him. It’s his 140th role and fits in with his current desire to sing many of Verdi’s baritone roles as he has already done with some success in Simon Boccanegra all over the world. LAO’s new production of I due Foscari directed with all the placidity one could imagine by Thaddeus Strassberger, will also tour the world with stops in Valencia and the Royal Opera House in London. But despite some world class performances from Domingo, Music Director James Conlon, and one soprano spitfire by the name of Marina Poplavskaya the show is mostly a dud.

At the very core of the problem is the opera itself. An early effort with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, Verdi certainly had some of his core obsessions about fathers and their children sorted out for the stage, but despite the success of both Nabucco and Ernani which preceded it, dramatic narrative is largely absent from Foscari. As the opera opens, the elderly Venetian Doge, Francesco Foscari, played by Mr. Domingo, finds himself in a tough spot as his son, Jacopo Foscari, the handsome Fracesco Meli, has returned from an exile to stand trial again on new charges of treason and murder that are never explained in any concrete way. Members of the Doge’s ruling council have it out for the younger Foscari and convict him despite his innocence and sentence him to further exile. The rest of the opera consists of Jacopo’s wife, Lucrezia, a radiant Poplavskaya, begging and pleading for this second exile not to happen or for her at least to be allowed to go with him while the father wrings his hands over his inability to do anything about it. Most operas rest comfortably on a certain amount of fait accompli, but I due Foscari ends more or less right where it begins three acts and three hours later.

Along the way there is some lovely singing. Mr. Domingo amazes again with his tenor interpretation of a baritone role. His stage presence and ability to deliver a nuanced complex performance is still unparalleled. He’s a living breathing master class onstage. And when he's performing, he continues to serve as more than enough justification for reviving this piece and giving it a brand-spanking new production. Poplavskaya does crazy like nobody else, and her Lucrezia is delicious to watch despite having little to do. Her tone was patchy in the upper registers early on, but by Act II she had settled in and was bright and penetrating. Francesco Meli made his local debut as the wrongly accused son and gave a reliable if not always completely assured vocal performance. It you’re no fan of tenors, this may be the opera for you in that Mr. Meli is forced to appear either caged or chained under the threat of violence throughout the whole evening including a rather inexplicable Act I aria in which his cage is lowered down from the fly space above, eventually making its way through the stage floor below. Conlon made the best case for Verdi’s zesty score and tapped into all those things that made the composer great even in his earlier years on Saturday. Clearly a little more rehearsal time with the principals was needed, however, as things went awry on more than a few occasions despite a stunner of an Act II trio.

But perhaps the biggest misstep here was the almost absent production directed by Strassberger with set designer Kevin Knight. The principals appear and disappear on a series of elevated wooden plank walkways that extend and retract surrounded by giant stone walls whose lower regions have crumbled and remain standing through a series of what look to be metallic supports. Despite costumes that reference 15th-century Venice, the whole thing feels like David McVicar’s vision of Fire Island at times. A walk way above provides space for the chorus to enter and leave along the way, but visually there isn’t much going on in this dark, static space even when a fire breather arrives briefly for a festival at the start of Act III. And in another odd twist, projected video used to open each act is covered with several screens of brief explanatory text as if the production team was worried that the libretto wasn't going to be able to quite make sense of it all. They were right, but the text also gave off the air of a B-movie growing tiresome by the start of Act II where the audience is reading over Verdi's beautiful opening score. The show never feels as menacing or conflicted as its characters are inside and it passes without much of an emotional bump. Still it's another chance to see the incredible Mr. Domingo do things that really nobody else in the opera world can which may be reason enough to go before the show closes on October 9.


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