I due Foscari, Royal Opera House

Plácido Domingo, Francesco Meli and Maria Agresta star

I due Foscari, Royal Opera House

‘A funeral…which has too uniform a tinta and colour from beginning to end.’ Verdi was right about I Due Foscari, Byron’s sad tale of a Venetian Doge, losing both his power and his last remaining son. It opens with misery, rises to desperation, and ends in despair. But what it lacks in drama is more than made up for by its music, sung in this production by an ideal Latinate cast with idiomatic direction from Antonio Pappano.

The role of Doge could have been written for the 73-year-old super-tenor-turned-baritone Plácido Domingo and he held the stage, along with the mellifluous Italian tenor Francesco Meli as his son Jacopo and a glossy Maria Agresta as his wife Lucrezia. Though Meli and Agrestra’s characters feel one-dimensional beside Domingo’s fully-realised Doge, their contrasting voices produce wonderful duets and trios: when Lucrezia pleads for her husband’s life the threading of platinum through bronze is striking. Though a sense of struggle is essential to the Doge’s role, there were moments of raw strain as the evening wore on: Domingo’s cast-iron technique supports him, but by Act III every note was ending on a rasping crescendo.

Pappano delivered a supple, nuanced reading, full of illuminating detail: out of the swirling overture a clarinet rises, stranded, alone, an intense enactment of the Doge’s sudden isolation in Venice. Not all such highlights were achieved: the duet between viola and cello in the Act II prison scene failed to lift off the page, while chorus interludes felt sluggish and vague.

In fact, sluggish and vague characterises Thaddeus Strassberger’s production (already seen in Los Angeles and Valencia). Kevin Knight’s set designs allow for the odd impressive tableau – a high walkway over which ghostly nuns inch forward above a chasm-like prison – and costume-designer Mattie Ullrich had fun with some fabulous couture, shades of Vivienne Westwood meets Star Trek. More memorable is Bruno Poet’s clever lighting: the Council of Ten’s red silk robes veritably burn in the darkness. Yet stage direction was woefully unconvincing, full of surplus activity: the limp-wristed torturers who potter about the prison are about as threatening as a group of municipal road-sweepers. Meli, as Jacopo, swings haplessly from a rope and then jumps down unharmed, while cages sail up and down like lifts in a gothic department store.

Strassberger decides to send Lucrezia mad with grief, and the production reaches a low point as the Doge dies and we see Agresta hastily drown her son in a puddle, distracting from Domingo’s intensely moving exit.


I due Foscari runs until 2 November 2014 at the Royal Opera House. Visit: www.roh.org.uk

Photo: Catherine Ashmore




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