Opera + Classical Music Reviews

I due Foscari review – Chelsea Opera Group wrings every ounce of emotion out of this tragedy

9 June 2024

An excellent opportunity to hear a frequently overlooked Verdi opera at Cadogan Hall.

I due Foscari

I due Foscari (Photo: Sam Smith)

Verdi’s I due Foscari, with a libretto by Francesca Maria Piave, is based on Byron’s historical play The Two Foscari of 1821. Its premiere in Rome’s Teatro Argentina on 3 November 1844 was challenging since audiences felt disgruntled at rising ticket prices and the opening night performances left something to be desired, but nevertheless it was generally well received. At the time, Verdi’s most famous works such as Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata still lay several years in the future. His most successfully received opera to date was Ernani, and while I due Foscari was not acclaimed to quite the same extent as that, today we are inclined to view it favourably by virtue of its emotional story and forward looking music. 

Set in mid-15th century Venice, the plot is loosely based on the true story of the downfall of Doge Francesco Foscari and his son Jacopo. In the opera Jacopo, who was accused of murdering Ermolao Donato and consequently exiled, returns to his beloved Venice, even though it is forbidden for him to do so. He consequently appears before the City’s ruling Council of Ten who, far from considering his pleas of innocence, reel out a whole list of charges against him such as colluding with foreign princes. Jacopo is further aggravated by the Council’s insistence that it is being lenient in demanding he be exiled once more rather than executed. The thought that his wife Lucrezia may go with him is enough to keep him going, but when he is forced to leave alone he feels that all is lost.

Although Francesco is deeply distressed at the situation his son is in, as Doge he feels unable to override the rule of law and the established processes for administering justice. What makes the opera so compelling is that Francesco’s heart breaking dilemma feels extremely relatable. Even if it is on more trivial issues, we have all faced occasions when we have been unable to challenge rules that in theory exist to ensure fairness, even though we feel they are being asserted in a way that hardly achieves it. In this instance, certain members of the Council, including one Loredano, have their own agenda to bring down the Foscaris. Francesco is not blind to this, but the fact that at least some of Jacopo’s actions technically constitute crimes means there is nothing he can do to counter their actions.

With nothing left to live for, Jacopo dies after boarding the ship that is to take him from Venice, and before he can learn that his innocence has been proved as Donato’s real murderer confessed on his deathbed. At this point Loredano and the Council demand that Francesco, due to his age, abdicates as Doge. After railing against them, he lays down the trappings of his office and even hears the bell of San Marco announcing that a successor has been chosen before he dies. The ending is highly emotive for the simple reason that it really has no redeeming features. There is very little sense in which Francesco has been triumphant by remaining steadfast in the face of evil. Rather, it shows how he has been defeated on so many levels as those seeking to destroy him politically have succeeded in taking his family and very life away.

“The opera’s music is… far more ground breaking than might at first be apparent”

The opera’s music is highly interesting and far more ground breaking than might at first be apparent. Francesco, Jacopo and Lucrezia are all given a distinctive orchestral theme, which accompanies them at their most important appearances on stage, while a fourth recurring theme, this time vocal in origin, is associated with the Council of Ten. As these precede Wagner’s use of the same technique, Roger Parker describes them as ‘proto leitmotifs’ and actually suggests that they are applied too rigidly. Nevertheless, he believes they reveal Verdi’s interest in exploring new means of musical and dramatic articulation, and that after I due Foscari he never employed local colour in the ‘mechanical’ way that he had in his earliest operas. 

This concert performance from the Chelsea Opera Group, conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren in the intimate Cadogan Hall, was frequently overwhelming, but it also did justice to the range of moods and emotions that the score is designed to convey. For example, the chorus, under its director Lindsay Bramley, proved to be immensely versatile as across the opera it portrayed the formidable Council of Ten, Lucrezia’s sympathetic maid servants, gondoliers preparing to race and masked revellers.

Andrew Henley as the Senator Barbarigo, John Vallance as the Attendant on the Council of Ten and Kevin Hollands as the Servant of the Doge all played their parts to the full, while Emyr Wyn Jones’ bass-baritone felt perfectly suited to portraying the sinister Loredano, and Georgia Mae Bishop revealed a rich mezzo-soprano as Lucrezia’s confidante Pisana. Pablo Bemsch’s tenor seemed well disposed to conveying all of Jacopo Foscari’s anguish and despair, and his Act II duet ‘No, non morrai’ with Anush Hovhannisyan’s Lucrezia was deeply affecting. 

Hovhannisyan’s performance was as feeling as it was technically accomplished, as her soprano scaled great vocal heights and her lines were beautifully shaped. The other standout performance came from the 2019 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Andrii Kymach who, as Francesco Foscari, portrayed the torn and despondent father with the right combination of dignity and visible emotion. With his baritone revealing great richness and depth alongside many pleasing grains and nuances, his assumption of the role will live long in the memory.  

For details of all the Chelsea Opera Group’s events in 2024, which include performances of Puccini’s Capriccio sinfonico, Messa di Gloria and Le Villi on 2 November, visit its website.

buy Andrii Kymach MP3s or CDs
Spotify Andrii Kymach on Spotify

More on Andrii Kymach
I due Foscari review – Chelsea Opera Group wrings every ounce of emotion out of this tragedy