The Two Foscari Opera Review

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The Two FoscariGiuseppe Verdi not only composed operas such as the tragic love story La Traviata and the Egypt-set epic Aida (which, when I was a boy, I saw performed at the Roman Forum with real camels and donkeys onstage!). He also created classics with explicitly political overtones, such as Simon Boccanegra, based on a similarly named historical figure who was Genoa’s Doge in 1339. In the 14th century Venetian dialect Doge is the 20th century Italian language equivalent of “Il Duce”– Benito Mussolini’s title – and means “duke” or “leader.” Verdi’s The Two Foscari is about another actual Doge, the Venetian Francesco Foscari, who served in that post for about 34 years until 1457.

LA Opera presented Boccanegra last season and produced Foscari during the current season; both starred Placido Domingo as a Doge, with the world renowned tenor singing the title roles as a baritone. In Foscari Domingo’s Doge is internally torn by his conflicting dual loyalties: One to the much vaunted Venetian state, the other to his only surviving son, Jacopo, the other eponymous Foscari (Italian tenor Francesco Meli in his LA Opera debut). Although he maintains his innocence, Jacopo has been convicted of high crimes and misdemeanors by the Council of Ten, a fearsome body with sweeping powers led by Francesco’s nemesis, Loredano (Ukrainian bass Ievgen Orlov, who also appears this season in Don Giovanni). These cretins banish Jacopo, who must get out of Doge and live in exile at Crete. Jacopo’s wife, Lucrezia Contarini (Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya), pleads her husband’s cause and case, tearing her father-in-law Francesco apart, pitting the statesman against the father, the patrician against the parent.

Given the productions of both Simon Boccanegra and The Two Foscari in the same year, an operagoer mightask: “Who let the Doges out?” What is especially intriguing in the latter is Foscari’s theme of torture and wrongful imprisonment of a political prisoner. In 2010’s Il Postino Placido Domingo played the Chilean Marxist intellectual and poet Pablo Neruda; it was the tenor and LA Opera conductor James Conlon who chose The Two Foscari to be on this season’s bill. Is it possible that the artists are using this 1844 opera to comment upon contemporary political prisoners, torture, water boarding, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, other black sites and top secret prisons?

The music in Foscari is highly “operatic,” in the sense that like elements of the plot the throbbing score is overwrought and melodramatic. Every scene is sinister and downbeat, aside from a respite provided by the reenactment of one of those grand Grand Canal Venetian carnivals. Regarding tragedies, Verdi once opined, “if you aren’t careful, you end up in a mortuary.” But what enlivens this production is scenic designer Kevin Knight’s sets, among the best to grace the Dorothy Chandler. Along with the lighting designer, an aptly named Bruno Poet, the shadowy prison and torture chamber is exquisitely rendered, creating at one point a Boschian tableaux. They also conjure up Venice, that nautical jewel, with scrims, more slides than you’d find in a World Series and sets suggestive of lagoons, gondolas, piazzas and winged lions, the city’s logo. Lights descend from the ceiling, grim prison sets emerge from the bowels of the stage. On an overhead bridge the terrifying robed Council of Ten or nuns, beautifully garbed in period apparel by costume designer Mattie Ullrich, oversee the unfolding action. Ullrich’s carnival revelers are a joy to behold, if briefly.

Led by that stellar singing actor, Domingo, the cast delivers superb, heart rending performances. Indeed, during the enthusiastic curtain calls the villainous Loredano played by Orlov the bass was booed (although, to be sure, good naturedly by the enthralled audience). All of these dramatic and artistic elements are combined and supervised by director Thaddeus Strassberger, giving us some of LA Opera’s finest mise-en-scene to date, as complex as counterpoint.

The Two Foscari marked multi-talented Placido Domingo’s final onstage performance for the season. However, this Renaissance Man will replace conductor James Conlon at the orchestral helm, and will wield the baton at the Oct. 14 staging of Don Giovanni, and later in the season during the productions of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca (another work about torture and imprisonment!) and the world premiere of Lee Holridge’s Dulce Rosa.

Tosca is being performed May 18 – June 8, 2013 and Dulce Rosa is being performed May 19 – June 9, 2013 at LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: (213)972-8001; www.laopera.com.

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Ed Rampell About Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film critic/historian and author named after Edward R. Murrow, in honor of the broadcaster's exposé of Senator Joe McCarthy. As a film critic and historian Rampell co-wrote Made in Paradise: Hollywood's Films of Hawaii and the South Seas and Pearl Harbor in the Movies and Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States. He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., Islands, Action Asia, Travel Age West, Skin Inc., Porthole, Far East Traveler, Asian Diver, L.A. Times, Toronto Globe & Mail, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Pacific Business News, E The Environmental Magazine, L.A. Reader, and is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Journal.