I Due Foscari – one opera; two experiences

One of our favourite operas – the rarely-performed I Due Foscari (Verdi)* – is on at the Royal Opera House. We went to see it last Thursday and followed this up on Monday by watching the live relay performance in the cinema.

First off, the reviews weren’t great, but experience has taught us to keep an open mind, as performances often warm up. On the stage, as far as the singers were concerned, all was well. With Pappano in the pit and Placido Domingo, Francesco Meli and Maria Agresta giving us glorious music with high tragedy and great passion, we were very happy listeners.

BUT this is a maddening production. It is set in a what looks like a Venetian bomb site. Background figures move constantly, but very, very slowly and distractingly, throughout the performance, with some gruesome slow-motion torture thrown in. If you succeed in ignoring the figures, then the scenery – that is the narrow platforms for keeping your feet dry in watery Venice – also move frequently and erratically. (It brought to mind slow-motion table football). If you manage to stop worrying about whether the singers will fall off the platforms, you are dizzied by the Doge’s dining room and bedroom, which appear on a flying, sloped platform, on which the 89-year-old Doge (72-year-old Domingo) has to look stable AND sing his heart out. Then there’s the costumes; these are a sort of riff on Russian Eighteenth century costumes – with a few spare metres of brocade thrown in, the wealthy have electric colours, the poor are clad in grey, brown and dirty white. The Doge’s son, Jacopo, a prisoner, was the only soloist who didn’t have to drag a weighty costume around as he sang, so instead they hung him above the stage in a cage, or tortured him as he sang. In spite of all the drama, the pace felt slow, due, I suggest, to the staging not the conducting.

So three days later, in some curiosity, we went to the

cinema

to see the same opera. In this case cinema wins, because the cameramen/women could focus on the singers and not on the distractions on stage, they can even correct for the sloping platform (see clip). Of course the sound is not as exciting as being in the same space as the musicians, but it was pretty damn good. In addition the singers responded to the extra stimulation of being on camera, and this performance was a couple of notches above the earlier one.

We just love the music, but I fear the staging of this production is such that we are unlikely to hear it again for a good few years.

*Plot: The Doge of Venice, now 89, is being forced by The Ten (his rivals and who actually rule) to condemn his last remaining son to exile for treason and murder. His daughter-in-law fights desperately to persuade him to use his power to release his son. The Doge is torn between his role as a ruler, who must uphold justice, and as a father whose, possibly innocent, son will be exiled until death.

9 thoughts on “I Due Foscari – one opera; two experiences

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
    I saw a production of Die Walküre once where the set was made up of sloping platforms. The cast were expected to leap from one to another while a) singing b) keeping a hold on very long spears. Watching them steady themselves when they landed got really tedious. It may have been around that time (1937) when I started listening with my eyes shut, something I was already doing during plays. Did I mention that my wife has sharp elboes?

    • I can’t cope with Wagner. I have been to a few operas in the distant past and I would definitely drop off if I had to go again, though some of his music is very beautiful. For me Verdi has always topped the opera billing.


  2. Did you see that, Hilary ? – apart from wanting to kill the bloke doing the ‘interview’, who wouldn’t stop talking to allow Plácido to answer …
    I can’t imagine why he allowed the designer to do this to the opera – it’s not his usual style at all, surely ? – or has he become someone desperate to stay ‘modern’ ? Bring back the likes of Zeffirelli !!!!
    (You know I’m absolutely with you re Wagner, and also re Verdi. Although Puccini …)

  3. Domingo has been in far worse costume and staging than this in his time, and I think when you’re rehearsing you often buy the designer’s belief in what he is doing. I’m always amazed at how often (though not always) success and flops are alike a total surprise to the performers. It’s the public who chose in the end… and that’s basically what Domingo says at a later stage in this long interview which we watched live. It was a very leisurely interview lasting a good hour with an audience including many singers. The ‘bloke’ in the interview is Antonio Pappano – you mustn’t knock him, he is a brilliant and versatile musician; a conductor that opera singers beg for, a stunning pianist, he can sing too, he has a great sense of humour and he has been the best thing the ROH has had since Solti.

    The night after we saw Foscari at the cinema, I had my opera friends round (once a month) and we watched Zeffirelli’s Otello! A great hit (though he cuts the Willow Song).

  4. Thank you what a great review, I wished I was in London more often 🙂 I asked my parents if they could book an opera for my 21st but they said nothing was on until the weekend and I have to go back to Glasgow before then.

    • Find the Glasgow cinema that has the Live relays from the Royal Opera House and book for the 29th November for L’Elisir d’Amore (Bryn Terfel, Vittorio Grigolo and Lucy Crowe). I saw/heard Lucy several years ago in a BYO concert and now she’s at the ROH! Have a wonderful 21st, I can’t believe a year has passed since your last birthday.

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