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L.A. Opera’s “The Two Foscari”- A Must-See Production

           What Lies Beneath:

                         Probing the Shadows of Power in LA Opera’s I Due Foscari


              Leticia Marie Sanchez

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, rued Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Or, in the case of Giuseppe Verdi’s I Due Foscari, uneasy lies the head that wears the corno ducale, the gemmed, scarlet Doge-cap. This rarely produced opera about Venice’s fifteenth-century ruler, Doge Francesco Foscari (played eminently by Plácido Domingo), has not been seen in the United States in more than four decades. LA Opera’s interpretation of Verdi’s rare jewel is a Must-See production, due to not only the talent of its cast, but also to the cinematic, visually engaging direction by Thaddeus Strassberger and scenic designer Kevin Knight.

Even before the opera begins, a screen displays shifting, blue waves. The Republic of Venice was formally known as La Serenissima: the most serene. These waves, however, are anything but tranquil. No light reflects through the water on the La Opera screen, hinting at the dark, tumultuous mysteries that lie beneath. Black smoke juxtaposes with the haunting strains of the overture. The dramatic impact is enhanced by visually arresting calligraphy adorning the screen. The clever cinematic touch of calligraphy is suggestive of epic film, with its majestic introductions and entre-actes, like antique pages out of a history book. The hypnotic repetition of the words mistero and silenzo in antique calligraphy further intensifies the ominous mood.

“I wear the mask of a Doge, but have the heart of a father,” sings Plácido Domingo, expertly portraying the inner turmoil and anguish of Francesco Foscari. The juxtaposition between public power and private vulnerability extends to the lyrical costumes designed by Mattie Ulrich. For instance, the Doge wears a rich red robe that exudes authority, yet also dons a white nightdress that illustrates his frailty as an aging grandfather.

Left: Plácido Domingo as Francesco Foscari, Photo by Robert Millard, LA Opera

The bright Venetian carnival scenes are like Roman bread and circuses, entertainment that distracts from the ominous political situation. Enchanted by the fire-thrower, the crowds are indifferent to the dark machinations of power that surround them.

Kevin Knight’s expressive set transports the audience to the macabre secret torture chambers in the Doge Palace.

Jacopo Foscari sings, as he hangs morbidly from a box: the literal caging of a virtuous soul. The purity of Italian tenor Francesco Meli’s tone resonates with the integrity of his character, the honorable son of a Doge pleading for justice.

Left: Francesco Meli as Jacopo Foscari, Photo by Robert Millard, LA Opera

Russian Soprano Marina Poplavskaya triumphantly interprets Jacopo Foscari’s wife Lucrezia Contarini, not only because of her moving duets with Domingo (where she more than vocally holds her own) but also due to her impressive acting chops. Polavskaya’s regal posture and bearing in the first act, lends itself to a significant character arc in the third act, in which she descends into a downward spiral of madness.

The stark rubble in the set of the third act calls to mind Rossellini’s Germania Anno Zero. The debris epitomizes the emotional wreckage at the heart of Verdi’s tragedy. Francesco Foscari was a man who lost everything that gave his life meaning: his son and his Dogeship. How the mighty have fallen. The personal inferno of losing a family member had particular meaning for Verdi who lost his wife and two children in a period of less than two years, becoming a grieving widow in his thirties.

Left: Marina Poplavskaya as Lucrezia Contarini,  Photo by Robert Millard, LA Opera

In the final act, Lucrezia emerges as a mourning widow, not in the expected black, but in a flowing white gown and unkempt hair, like a mad Ophelia, to commit, like Shakespeare’s tragic heroine, one final heinous act of drowning (you will have to watch the production to see who dies an aquatic death).

Amidst the dark rickety shadows of the Doge Palace, there was a moment when the strains of Verdi’s 19th century score of power, corruption, and violence evoked a musical moment in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather. This is surely not a coincidence. Nino Rota, the composer of the Godfather score had orchestrated Verdi’s work and was surely influenced by I Due Foscari, a creative work as timeless as a father’s love.

Angelenos, don’t miss this production before it heads to Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, Valencia’ s Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, and London’s Royal House Covent Garden. You don’t want to wait another forty years to see this gem.  As with the Endeavor shuttle, this momentous experience comes only once in a generation.

Remaining Performances of “The Two Foscari” at LA Opera:

Sunday September 23, 2012 02:00 PM
Saturday September 29, 2012 07:30 PM
Sunday October 07, 2012 02:00 PM
Tuesday October 09, 2012 07:30 PM

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Posted by on September 22nd, 2012

One Comment

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