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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
I Due Foscari
Francesco Foscari - Plácido Domingo
Jacopo Foscari - Francesco Meli
Lucrezia Contarini - Maria Agresta
Jacopo Loredano - Maurizio Muraro
Barbarigo - Samuel Sakker
Pisana - Rachel Kelly
Fante - Lee Hickenbottom
Servant - Dominic Barrand
Royal Opera Chorus & Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Antonio Pappano Thaddeus Strassberger (stage director)
Jonathan Haswell (video director)
rec. live at ROH 27 Oct 2014
Subtitles: EN/FR/GER/JP/KO
Sound format: 2.0LPCM + 5.1(5.0) DTS
Picture: 16:9
Format: NTSC
Region code: All regions
OPUS ARTE OA1207D DVD [122:00]

The run of performances from which this DVD is taken had a very mixed reception at the time, and justifiably so. The show was mounted entirely for Placido Domingo and had been borrowed from Los Angeles, where it had been built around the tenor and first performed in 2012. In the opera house, I found that it never really took fire, though there were certainly very enjoyable aspects.

Paradoxically, the essential draw of the evening was also the most controversial aspect – Domingo himself. The opposing views were almost always expressed as if they were simple, incontrovertible facts. For example, for Tim Ashley in The Guardian Domingo was “unquestionably rather fine”, while for Rupert Christiansen in The Telegraph “the performance sadly illustrated his waning powers”. It seemed to me at the time that most critics had already decided what their opinion was going to be before attending the performance based on whether or not they approved of his change of fach. What is undoubtedly true is that in a blind tasting no-one would consider that the voice they were hearing was a true baritone – a baritonal tenor is not a baritone. It does skew the vocal balance which Verdi intended, but given that it is a fact in this performance, it seem to me far more sensible to listen without prejudice to what Domingo does and judge it on its own terms. His vibrato is looser than it was in its prime, but really not to any great extent, and it is not significantly more so than Meli’s. It is also consistent throughout the range, not getting wider at the top as is often the case. As is usual with older voices, it takes longer to warm up, which is unfortunate as the only aria from the opera which has retained any foothold in the repertoire, ‘O vecchio cor’, is the baritone’s entrance aria. Domingo sings this well, but it would have been better had it occurred half way through the opera. He is already improving in the succeeding duet with Lucrezia, which has considerable excitement. By Act 2 scene 2 he has found his feet, and the scene with the Council of Ten is very impressive. The death scene in the opera’s finale finds him at his most convincing. His acting, especially his reacting, is first rate and far finer and more detailed than any other member of the cast. Watch, for example, Act 1 scene 2, where Lucrezia rounds on him for not saving Jacopo; the Doge’s changing emotions are vividly conveyed by Domingo. Given that he was 73 when this performance was recorded, it is an outstanding display; Christiansen’s view that it sadly illustrates waning powers seems utterly unjustified to my ears. There is, incidentally, a delightful bit in the extras that are included with the performance where Domingo gleefully explains that he is actually too young to play the Doge as the character is 89 years old.

The opera is essentially a three-hander as all the other parts, even the “baddy” Loredano, are little more than cough-and-spit roles. Maria Agresta’s Lucrezia is a fully committed, completely engaged performance. She is capable of some subtlety, though the top of the voice can be strident, and it is a real performance from the start. Her entrance is very exciting, grabbing the attention immediately and also demonstrating that she has good control of the high notes when singing quietly. Her first aria ‘Tu al cui sguardo’ is well-moulded, if without the detail that a really great Verdian could find in it (just listen to Caballé in her Verdi Rarities recital to see what can be done with it). The cabaletta is exciting, but the runs are a little effortful. She is facially animated, though her physical gestures are rather stock.

Francesco Meli’s Jacopo is another exciting performance. He has a bright, good-sized voice, and though I had been a little surprised to see him cast as Manrico in Trovatore at Covent Garden last July, he actually did a fine job. His vibrato is a little loose for my taste, especially on sustained notes, but he employs good dynamic variety. Like Domingo, he improves as the performance progresses. This may have been partly because the poor man has to sing his first aria in a small, thick-barred cage suspended virtually at the top of the proscenium arch! This hardly allows anyone to do their best, either vocally or histrionically. At least he is allowed out of the cage for the cabaletta. He is at his finest in Act 3 scene 1 where Jacopo prepares to go into exile; he includes some lovely dynamic shading and committed declamation.

As I have mentioned, Maurizio Murara’s Loredano has little to do, but it is well-enough done. The part really needs a voice with a little more steel in it; Muraro’s is rather soft-grained for so implacable a character.

As one would expect, Pappano conducts to the manner born. He brings out as much subtlety as can be found in this less-than-front-rank piece but does not short-change the pulsing excitement which is the essence of early Verdi.

The aspect that was universally panned in 2014 was the production. About the only commendation that can be made about it is that there is nothing positively objectionable in it. It is simply dull and utterly uninspired. The opera is set in its historical period and the costumes are generally attractive and opulent, though the sets are very basic. There are, however, a number of dramatically nonsensical things. For example, when Jacopo is sentenced to exile he receives communion (including the wine – in Catholic Venice!) and spits it out over the priest, who then forces more communion wine down his throat. Talk about effects without causes. Most absurdly gratuitous is at the very end of the opera when Strassberger decides to make Lucrezia go mad and drown her own young son – a piece of utterly fatuous grand guignol. Strassberger is also another opera director who seems to have no idea what to do with the chorus. They simply wander on, sing directly at the audience without any reaction to what is happening on stage, stand about for a bit and then wander off again. In fact, wandering on and off is about the only action there is in the production – there are several pointless processions along raised duckboards. There is, of course, the almost obligatory gratuitous violence in the scene in the dungeon, but even that largely passes us by without gaining attention. I am no great fan of regietheater, but this is the sort of thing that gives conventional productions a bad name.

This performance is a definite curate’s egg, but in purely musical terms there is much to enjoy. Sound and picture quality are excellent, though the extras are pretty minimal.

Paul Steinson

Previous review (Blu-ray): Robert J Farr



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