On the Grand Canal in Venice, the city operates boats as buses for public transportation. On the right and left banks of the Canal are rows of gorgeous houses, the celebrated palazzi, rising miraculously out of the water. Many have private docks and water-entrances, with gondolas and other vessels tied up at the piers. Dozens of other boats vie for space in the canal’s mainstream.
Suddenly, amid these wonders there stands a large palazzo, Ca’ Foscari, the marvel built on the Canal in the 1400s by Francesco Foscari, the Doge or ruler of Venice. He is a main character in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera The Two Foscari (I Due Foscari).
(The Foscari palazzo, Ca’ Foscari, stands at the far right in this photograph by Carlo Naya, circa 1875.)
This seems like history, but for me Ca’ Foscari was a workplace. Living in Venice in the 1970s, I was teaching English as a second language in Adult Education in the palazzo. My students were several dozen pilots, sailors, dockhands, ticket-takers, janitors and other employees of the public boat system. I’m not sure what they learned, but from them I learned to speak Venetian, which is very different from Italian; and the Venetian language was also one of the first languages that four of my children learned.
Giuseppe Verdi and the Creation of The Two Foscari
Between 1842 and 1844, Verdi’s operas Nabucco, I Lombardi della Prima Crociata and Ernani won over audiences. And because of Verdi’s growing popularity, it was virtually certain that he would be invited to compose a work for one of Rome’s theaters. His commission for The Two Foscari came from the impresario of the Teatro Argentina.
Verdi had a great success in the early 1840s with Ernani, in part because Francesco Maria Piave, his librettist, a Venetian, was an experienced professional, having written texts for other composers. Piave’s librettos for Verdi and others contain transparent and remarkably beautiful lines. Indeed, few can match his texts for Rigoletto and La Traviata, to say nothing of La Forza del Destino. His lines are also found at their best in the heartbreaking phrase of young Jacopo Foscari, “Ecco la mia Venezia,” as he, dragged from a windowless prison cell, sees the city and the lagoon. In fact, nostalgia and grief over leaving Venice and his family eventually kill this character as he is being sent into exile. Another main character in the opera is Jacopo’s father Francesco Foscari, the Doge who is the ruler of Venice. Remarkably, a sculpture of Francesco still adorns the entrance to the Doge’s Palace where he is shown kneeling before the Lion of Saint Mark. To make the meaning of the image absolutely clear, the Lion has its paw on a large book that reads: “Peace be unto you, Mark, my evangelist.” (Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus.)
(Photo by Richard Fischer)
The opera was created for the Teatro Argentina in Rome, and it had its world premiere on November 3, 1844. Verdi and Piave both were there to oversee rehearsals and early performances. Both were concerned with the production of the opera. Verdi disliked a lot about cities. When this opera was written, he dismissively referred to them as “capitals.” And he would say: “You, who live in the capitals.” He also sometimes would address friends or colleagues, accusing them of not understanding the problems of ordinary people because they lived in cities.
Piave was already familiar with Rome, where he had studied philosophy and rhetoric, and where his family had an extraordinary personal connection with Pope Gregory XVI. In fact, the librettist made a real name for himself in Roman literary and poetry societies, publishing essays and short novels and even translating some of the psalms. Loyal and good-natured, he was known as “that Goth from Venice,” with an unruly mop of auburn hair, a shaggy beard and a loud voice. All this meant that he was a big asset to Verdi.
The idea for writing The Two Foscari was Verdi’s. The composer described the subject as “beautiful, very beautiful, super-beautiful.” Work was already well underway in May 1844 when Piave sent Verdi the scenario he had written.
Then a revised version had to be sent to Rome to get the approval of the Pope’s censors, who virtually ruled the theaters. The papal censors were likely to veto any text that included regicide, treason against the state, offenses against God, the clergy or the church and, of course, adulterous love, “bawdiness and lewdness” and suicide. The censors would change characters as they liked, and rip plots apart. Poetic lines and even whole scenes were cut or rewritten or wrenched out of context. To Verdi’s and Piave’s relief, the censors approved the scenario of The Two Foscari without changing anything.
This was not an easy time for Verdi who had been ill and was often tired. Having tried to recover at home, he left for Rome, taking the ship from Livorno to Civitavecchia and riding out “a bad sea.” He arrived during the first week of October 1844. With him was Piave, who was returning to familiar territory. Up to then Verdi’s experience of cities had been limited to Milan, Genoa, Venice and Parma, so Piave and his connections gave Verdi an essential entrée to Roman literary and theatrical circles
One of Piave’s friends and mentors in Rome was Jacopo Ferretti, a respected older librettist and poet. He remained a man of sterling literary reputation as the author of librettos for Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola) and Donizetti’s L’Ajo nell’Imbarazzo, Il Furioso all’Isola di San Domingo and Torquato Tasso, among other works.
He knew Roman theaters at first hand and was therefore the right person to help Verdi and Piave in their situation.
The challenge can hardly be overstated. Virtually all the great Italian composers had presented successful premieres in Rome, many at the Teatro Torodinona, the Teatro Valle and the Teatro Argentina, so they could not afford to have a fiasco. The kind of fame that Donizetti and Rossini had won in the city was exactly what was needed in 1844. There can be no doubt that the support of Ferretti helped set the stage for a significant personal triumph for Verdi.
A letter from Rome, dated October 5, 1844, described the censors’ final clearance for the production. Verdi visited Ferretti and was about to begin rehearsals, and he reported that two other works were to precede The Two Foscari at the Argentina. And like every tourist, Verdi was impressed by the city: “I am going all around Rome and am astonished.”
On October 21, Piave sent news to a colleague in Venice: “Here we are, rehearsing Foscari, which will go onstage on the evening of November 3 and not before. The music (it seems to me) is worthy of Verdi and of his fame.” Artistically the composer was very much at an advantage, with a cast that included the versatile dramatic soprano Marianna Barbieri-Nini, who was later his Lady Macbeth, and Achille De Bassini, a reliable singer whom Verdi used in other productions.
From everything we know about the premiere of The Two Foscari, it seems the Roman audience did not give Verdi the success he was hoping for. People were critical of singers who “shouted,” the critics said, and even a fine artist like Barbieri-Nini was taken to task. According to one review, cited by Marcello Conati in La Bottega della Musica, the first-night audience did not applaud all the pieces in the opera; it particularly disapproved of one number in the first act, when the singers seemed in poor form, and the tenor so distressed that people wondered whether he could even finish the opera. As Julian Budden pointed out in his book The Operas of Verdi, the operagoers were also upset by the fact that the theater had raised the price of the tickets. Verdi got only seven curtain calls when he often got 20 or 30 in other places. The second night went better than the first because by then the singers were in control of their roles.
The greatest risk was that the opera was too tragic. Verdi’s later, well-known opinion was: “In operas that are inherently sad, if you aren’t careful, you end up in a mortuary.” Fortunately that is not what happened here. While Verdi was in Rome, he was honored by such dignitaries as Prince Don Alessandro Torlonia, who gave a sumptuous dinner party for him; and the City of Rome struck gold medals to mark his visit.
Mary Jane Phillips is the author of numerous books including Puccini: A Biography (2002) and the award-winning Verdi: A Biography (1996). She is a frequent contributor to Opera News and many other publications.
Acknowledgements: Julian Budden, Clare Ann Matz, Margaret Matz, Charles Matz III, the Royal Opera Convent Garden, William Weaver and Andrew Porter.