Giuseppe Verdi: I due Foscari (1844)

Opera in three acts. 1 hour 43 minutes. Dramatically and even melodically this is not the most inventive opera. In terms of musical technology it is actually one of the most advanced scores Verdi wrote prior to Macbeth (1847). There is more through-composition here than in any of Verdi’s previous operas, the cabaletti do not start with their usual orchestral oom-pah-pah introductions and except for the scene changes and act finales there are no obvious breaks in the musical numbers. Rather than having recurring melodies that are introduced from the overture that do not directly mean anything each of the three main characters have a leitmotif and there is also a fourth dreary one for the Council of Ten. The featured image is a domesticated rendering of the last meeting of the two Foscari by Francesco Hayez circa 1840.

I decided to revise this review based on the 1980s PHILIPS recording with Jose Carreras and Katia Ricciarelli.

PLOT: Venice, 1457. Jacopo Foscari, the son of the Doge Francesco Foscari has returned from banishment only to be tried for murder. Jacopo’s wife Lucrezia is bent on having him released and is fed up with how long they have been involuntarily kept apart. Jacopo Loredano, who hates the Foscari for some unknown reason, makes sure that both men are destroyed.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oVAUpBrQKgk

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1 38 minutes

Scene 1: Outside the Council Chamber, Palace of the Doge, Venice.

0: The prelude * is a dark and dim affair divided into three parts, at first broodingly loud it turns quiet with an attractive oboe solo with minimal high string accompaniment. Then agitation, crescendo, and then quiet brooding that sounds almost like the boring long stretches of Wagner’s Parsifal only thankfully shorter because this is Verdi.

3: The chorus of the Council members is another brooding bit *, although watch for the somewhat happy violin and then a dizzy flute, this is the theme of the Council of Ten and it will pop up again later in the opera. It gets slightly more upbeat before dying away as the council goes in and Jacopo comes on.

7.5: He expresses his joy at seeing Venice again after years of banishment is not as lilting as I would have hoped although it is serviceable with a solo flute coming breaking in unannounced in an arioso *.  The cavatina is not that interesting except that it has no obvious orchestral introduction and just, well, happens.

11: His cabaletta however is rousing as he goes in to face trial **.

Scene 2: A hall in the palace.

15: Lucrezia implores heaven for mercy in a sweetly soft cavatina with quiet accompaniment from her ladies *. The cabaletta is furious but never seems to decide on a melody.

Scene 3: Same as scene 1.

The chorus of the Council that this 2 minute scene consists of the same type of music as the one that began the opera *. The Council feels certain of Jacopo’s guilt.

Scene 4:

26: Francesco has a lovely romanza to a gentle accompaniment *.

29, 32: Francesco’s duet with Lucrezia starts off low voltage if brooding but gets a little better with Francesco’s melody *. Lucrezia is all furious anti-establishmentarianism regarding the Venetian legal code and wants her husband back. As tears come to Francesco’s eyes there is another hint of a melody worth looking out for as the timer indicates *. Nice duetting between father and daughter (in-law) to the end of the act but what is going on on stage is more interesting than what is happening in the orchestra pit.

ACT 2: 35.30 minutes.

Scene 1: The prison.

0: Another quiet patch of prelude music, this time soloist violin and cello *.

3: Jacopo’s aria is a delicate balance of the lyrical and the furious *.

9: The first part of the duet between Jacopo and Lucrezia is sweet if of low depth *.

12, 13: Suddenly there is a weird Barcarolle male chorus outside *. After which Jacopo turns furious and then over a soft orchestral accompaniment (harps and strings) there is something very lovely as Lucrezia and Jacopo finish the duet **.

15: Francesco arrives and there is suddenly a very excited and jovial accompaniment as father and son see each other for the first time in years. Lucrezia especially explodes *.

17: Jacopo starts off the trio with a nice lyrical lilt, this is picked up by Francesco, and then Lucrezia comes in with some dramatic high note-ing before settling down and the whole thing comes back up again *.

23: Francesco has to leave as quickly as he arrived, Loredano shows up with the news that the Council has come to a decision. The quartet is a bit more lively than usual ** even if there is no golden melody here.

Scene 2: The Council Chamber.

30: Quiet council music as we expect punctuated with angry brooding at intervals. The judgement and sentence are declared: banishment, this time eternal. Jacopo takes the news relatively well with only a few outbursts of anger and as Francesco starts to mourn as to how helpless he is to help his son. It is all surprisingly low temperature until Lucrezia arrives with her two children engaging in musical flame throwing upon which  Jacopo embraces his children to the most heartbreaking non-melody ever ***. Lucrezia does her anti-establishmentarianism nut again when she learns that she and the children will not be allowed to follow Jacopo. This is the best number so far in the opera and it is great drama for five minutes.

ACT 3 29 minutes

Scene 1: Piazetta San Marco.

5: After a slightly too jovial and rather dim “Evviva” style opening chorus we have Loredano waiting on Jacopo who is about to be shipped off from Venice forever. After more of what is possibly opera’s dumbest happy chorale in an inappropriately dramatic moment everything turns serious with a return of the first doomful theme from the prelude and Jacopo is brought on for embarcation. That woodwind theme comes back as well as Jacopo says a heartbroken farewell to the city of his birth and to the woman whose life he regrets making so terrible, Lucrezia. She tells him to be still but he doesn’t listen, thank goodness because what transpires is another melodious ensemble with Jacopo backed by a harp as he says good-bye, this time forever ***. Five and a half beautiful minutes.

Scene 2: The Doge’s Palace.

11: Francesco expresses his grief over never seeing his son again in a tragic recitative *. Barbarigo (a friend of Jacopo’s) brings evidence that Jacopo was in fact innocent. The momentary joy this brings the old man is destroyed as Lucrezia runs in announcing that Jacopo has suddenly died.

15.5: Lucrezia greets her widowhood with a brief but melodic aria and then goes off **.

21: A servant brings word that the Council wishes to speak with Francesco. After some recitative he learns what they want him to do: Loredano orders him to abdicate because of his advanced age. He denounces them in a good aria ** but asks that his daughter-in-law be brought in as witness and he complies.

24: The last five minutes of the opera starts off with a lot of brooding and themes from the prelude but after Lucrezia returns and addresses her father-in-law as a “prince” he returns to his sympathetic self as the bell tolls announcing the election of the new Doge. It tolls again and then on the third time he too dies, Loredano is “paid” for whatever reason and only Lucrezia is left to mourn the two men. It just comes off *.

COMMENTS:

Technically this is a good opera, and I apologize for my previous analysis which found this work lacking. Verdi has eliminated many of the “stop-go” musical gestures common to the period and as I said earlier apart from the numerous (8) scene changes the numbers are through-composed and even blend into each other on occasion. The opera is not episodic: scenes flow easily into each other even if the number of set changes required is a bit of a waste (why couldn’t act 1 be one scene instead of four?). The opera races quickly enough to maintain interest throughout but there really isn’t much going on. We never find out why Loredano wants to and succeeds at destroying the Foscari, which is literally the only thing that happens in the opera so the lack of motive is a problem. There really isn’t a plot here so much as a situation and not understanding the entire situation leaves a black hole. Lucrezia announcing the death of Jacopo so quickly after we just saw him alive (five minutes before no less) and then for Francesco to call her back in (also five minutes after her previous departure) are both rather bizarre. There is some grand music: the duet and quartet in the prison scene, the sentencing scene from the arrival of Lucrezia onward, the embarkation scene ending act 3 scene 1 and Francesco’s denunciation of the Council in the finale scene. The rest of the music ranges from good to serviceable to awkward, this last mostly describing several of the choruses. The work as a whole appears to be a student exercise in innovating musical forms, and this is what salvages the opera from oblivion. A B/B+ for effort.

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