Opera in three acts. 1 hour 38 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.
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.
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1 34 minutes
Scene 1: Outside the Council Chamber, Palace of the Doge, Venice.
12: The prelude is a dark and dim affair, 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. 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 although I find it a little boring. It gets slightly more upbeat before dying away as the council goes in and Jacopo comes on. His aria as be expresses his joy at seeing Venice again after years of banishment is not as lilting as I would have hoped although it is serviceable but the cabaletta 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, nothing to comment on other than that the Council feels certain of Jacopo’s guilt.
22: Francesco has a lovely romanza to a gentle accompaniment *.
29, 32: Francesco’s duet with Lucrezia starts off low voltage but starts to get 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.
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 duet between Jacopo and Lucrezia tries desperately to be charming and Verdi tries every vocal convention from soprano high notes, gentle orchestration and (a lot of) tenor lilting but it still just only rates *.
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 that grows with Lucrezia and Jacopo ** finishing 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 cabaletta 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 the temperature starts to rise only when Lucrezia arrives with her two children and there is a minor musical bomb attack. Finally, 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 **. Seven good minutes.
Scene 2: The Doge’s Palace.
12: 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.
15.30: Lucrezia greets her widowhood with a brief but melodic aria and then goes off *.
20: 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 abduct 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. The ending is satisfactory, but not much more *.
Technically this is a good opera. 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 also not episodic, the scenes flowing easily into each other even if the number of set changes required is a bit of a waste of money (why couldn’t act 1 be one scene instead of four?), and races through from tableau to tableau 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 whole of the situation leaves a black whole. There is some good music here: the duet and especially the 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 is only so-so, however, and Verdi’s usage of leitmotif and orchestral effect is mostly subliminal (apart from the Council theme and the doom theme that starts the opera). B-.