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Verdi,  I Due Foscari : Orquesta Sinfónica de Bilbao. Coro de Ópera de Bilbao Conductor: Renato Palumbo Palacio Euskalduna de Bilbao. 15.11.2008. (JMI)

New Production from ABAO (Asociación Bilbaína de Amigos de la Ópera) and Teatro Verdi de Trieste.

Direction: Joseph Franconi Lee
Sets and Costumes: William Orlandi
Lighting: Franco Marri


Francesco Foscari: Marco Di Felice, baritone

Lucrezia Contarini: Latonia Moore, soprano

Jacopo Foscari: Francisco Casanova, tenor

Jacopo Loredano: Maurizio Muraro, bass

ABAO continues with their Tutto Verdi cycle and on this occasion  I Due Foscari was on the stage of the Palacio Euskalduna.  Foscari is Verdi’s sixth opera and his second collaboration with Piave. In my opinion, this is one of the best operas of the first Verdi period although it is very rarely performed, due in part probably to its weak and too predictable plot. It is one of those works where nothing new happens until the final scene, which is one of the best ever written by Verdi, and is dramatically surprising.

There are operas that seem to bring bad luck with them and this appears to be the case with Foscari in Bilbao. 25 years have passed since the last performance of this opera here, and since then there have been repeated cancellations whenever it has been in the repertoire.

For the 1983 Opera Festival, ABAO had programmed six works, with Renato Bruson booked to be the protagonist in Macbeth, Nabucco and I Due Foscari. On that occasion Bruson cancelled just 5 days before the Foscari premiere. ABAO was then more than happy to secure Matteo Manuguerra for Macbeth and Nabucco, but Foscari was not in his repertoire. In fact, only Cappuccilli and Sardinero had sung this opera before and both were busy. So the Doge Foscari was sung by  American Siegmund Cowan, who at one time had covered  Sardinero in this role in Buenos Aires, and who did not know the score and text completely. He sang the great final scene with a parchment in his hands, hiding the score, while the prompter was more audible than the baritone himself. Some days before Mara Zampieri had cancelled also as Lucrezia. More than one person in ABAO thought that that this was a unique event, unlikely to repeat itself. But history tends to have other ideas.

25 years later, here we are again and of the anticipated trio of singers (Nucci, Casanova, Mescheriakova) two were incapacitated, and just as had happened in 1983, they were the soprano and the baritone.  Bruno Bartoletti had already cancelled months before. All this happening to an opera which is so rarely performed is again a curious coincidence, as well as a crisis for the ABAO.

To face a situation of this type is one of the most serious that can happen to any opera organization, and it is in these cases where the class of an opera house is put to a real test. It is worth recognizing  then, that ABAO saved the situation in a more than satisfactory way given the magnitude of the problem.

The three great interpreters of Doge Francesco Foscari in the last 50 years have been Piero Cappuccilli, Renato Bruson and Leo Nucci. I do not believe that there is anybody who can be in doubt that Nucci is today the best possible Foscari, and in my opinion he is the only one. Therefore, his cancellation was like a bombshell. Under these circumstances it is clear that any substitution could hardly go beyond saving the show with dignity. The substitute for Nucci was Marco Di  Felice, who was a good replacement in the circumstances although  he is too young for the character an lacks vocal weight and authority. He is however, an interesting and promising baritone, who could have a good future, if he does not run too fast. The voice is more of a lyric baritone, rather more apt for Donizetti and some Verdi but not really suited to the main Verdi repertoire. The voice is pleasant, offers good homogeneity and he sings with expressiveness. This performance was his debut in the role and he’ll have the time to mature and deepen in it. Considering the circumstances, his performance must be highly commended.

Back in 1983 Mara Zampieri had cancelled and this time a cancellation happened again with Russian Marina Mescheriakova. If in the case of Nucci the cancellation could be considered an artistic catastrophe,  Mescheriakova's case  is very different, due to her vocal problems. Latonia Moore, who had already had a great success in Bilbao as Liú, was a fine replacement, improving on the original casting. by quite some margin. She was enthusiastically received, although she was also making her debut in the role. This young soprano has a bright future, and  should already be singing regularly in the big houses. She was an outstanding Lucrezia and very few sopranos can complete with her in this role.

As in 1983, the only one who did not cancel was the tenor. Francisco Casanova was Jacopo Foscari, offering a rather uneven performance. His first scene was more than worrying, as he seemed to be short of breath, uncomfortable, and with a voice that did not run well in the upper range. The situation improved later, with some particularly bright moments. This tenor is at a delicate crossroads, his physical figure perhaps proving something of a stumbling block to him. It would be a pity if his beautiful voice and his elegant way of singing were to be jeopardized by his size.

Renato Palumbo again replaced Bruno Bartoletti, as happened in La Battaglia di Legnano, and with much success. Palumbo is an outstanding conductor and guarantees success for this type of opera. I believe that he was also making his debut in Foscari, and in addition he had to take care of the two substitute singers. Palumbo was fully convincing in his direction, controlling everything and giving great assistance to the singers. In fact, he was largely responsible for the triumphant presentation of Verdi’s music in Bilbao this time. After controlling the opera with immense authority, he offered a very bright musical performance of the last scene, getting a better than usual performance from Bilbao’s Orchestra. The Chorus was its best:  few other choirs are as suited as they are to Verdi.

We had a new production with stage direction by Joseph Franconi Lee. Few positive things can be written of this, except its simplicity and the fact that it is not disturbing. Sets consist of movable wood panels, allowing effective changes of scene; costumes howeverare rather poor and short of creativity. In this dark staging, one could have expected a brighter lighting plot too. Franconi Lee does not excel when directing large groups of singers, who just enter, stay, sing and take their exits. I do think either that it is a good idea to present the Doge as a very old and decrepit human being, when in the final scene he shows great strength and dignity.  And what is there to say of the Regata scene? A few extras waving flags and a so called choreography which is best forgotten.

Among the secondary roles, Maurizio Muraro was a sonorous and good Loredano. The young tenor Andeka Azurmendi is improving musically without losing vocal quality, and Itziar Fernandez de Unda was an attractive Pisana in every sense.

There was a full theatre, with Latonia Moore and Renato Palumbo receiving the warmest applause. Marco Di Felice was also very well received. I'd dare to say though, that judging by the comments of many spectators on the way out, the true triumph of the evening was for a very promising composer, just  31 years old, called Giuseppe Verdi.

José M. Irurzun

Picture © E. Moreno Esquibel

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