1813: The birth year of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner
1913: The birth year of Benjamin Britten
2013: The year LA Opera and the classical music world will mark these three anniversaries. Actually, 2013 will serve as the center line for observing these birthdates. We have already begun this process, and it will extend into 2014.
One could barely think of three composers who were personally and artistically so different. And yet, aside from their centenary celebrations, they have one enormous attribute in common. All three unquestionably stand at the zenith of their respective operatic cultures. In presenting The Two Foscari (I Due Foscari), in its first production in a major American opera house in 40 years, LA Opera brings to light an essential work from Verdi’s early period, which will be especially appreciated by Verdi lovers. This opera represents an important step in the development of Verdi’s style and musical vocabulary, in which he gradually transforms the inherited culture of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini into a language of his own, quintessentially defining and personifying the Italian 19th century.
I Due Foscari is the sixth opera of Verdi’s 26 theatrical works (not counting several revised versions). Between his first opera, Oberto (1839), and Falstaff (1893) are 54 years. Foscari (1844) was written five years into that trajectory—in terms of works written, not yet a quarter of his ultimate output and in terms of years, less than ten percent of the way. It may be, by our standards, an “old-fashioned” opera. It certainly would have been considered as such by the composer himself. But we have come to measure the sophistication of Italian opera precisely by the yardstick Verdi has provided us through his extraordinary life’s productivity.
What it is easy for us to miss, in a first hearing, is actually how much there is that was new and significant at the time, starting with Verdi’s choice of subject. He recounts the story of the forced abdication of a great Venetian statesman (Francesco Foscari) resulting from an unseemly, clandestine intrigue by other Venetian nobles. (The Doge of the Venetian Republic was the head of state, and the word Doge is the Venetian form of the Latin word Dux, whence the English word duke and Mussolini’s self-appellation Duce). Considering that the work was intended to be premiered in Venice, this constituted an unacceptable affront to the nobility at large and to the still-prominent Foscari family. It was rejected as unsuitable, and Verdi later substituted it for a commission in Rome, where it was premiered.
After dispensing raw energy and occasional bombast in his early operas, he took a decisive step toward elegance and refinement. His third opera, Nabucco (1842), catapulted him to prominence as a daring young composer and, almost simultaneously, into a political hero.
Nabucco is to Verdi what Idomeneo is to Mozart, the “Eroica” Symphony to Beethoven, The Flying Dutchman to Wagner, and The Rite of Spring to Stravinsky: a quantum leap into the future. Verdi would continue a pattern of pushing his vocabulary forward with new forms and compositional procedures, followed by a work of consolidation. Foscari is a determined step towards intimate drama following larger-scaled works. It demonstrates a pattern he was to repeat nine years later, following the medieval and stormy Il Trovatore with the elegant Parisian “drawing room” romance of La Traviata.
Verdi concentrates the action of Foscari within a tight family unit: the aging Doge Francesco, his son Jacopo, persecuted by the intriguing nobles, and Jacopo’s devoted and courageous wife, Lucrezia Contarini (herself of noble blood). Venice is an alternatingly colorful and lugubrious background, one of the first examples of Verdi’s fascination with the political world and the ambiance of power. The first two words of the opera, an example of Verdi’s famous “parola scenica” (“the scenic word”), are “silenzio …mistero” (silence and mystery), which are said to reign over and to have protected Venice since its infancy. In contrast, the populace sings to Venice, the daughter, wife and mistress of the sea, as a mirror; the blue lagoon reflects the brightness of day, and the moon transforms its night into silver.
Verdi uses identifying motifs for his principal characters in a more consistent way than in his previous operas. His characteristic devotion to concision produces one of his shortest operas.
But by far the most important aspect of Foscari is the subject and the primacy of the father-son relationship. There is no question that the plight of the father is the single most central theme spanning Verdi’s entire output. Its absence in an opera is the exception rather than the rule. Psychobiography is a highly unreliable, if not an entirely unworthy, approach to analyzing works of art, but it is tempting to state the obvious. Verdi’s loss of his first wife and two infant children within 22 months between 1838 and 1840 clearly left its mark on the composer as well as the man.
His fathers are complex and multi-dimensional; few are stick figures of good or bad. Many of the fathers are unsympathetic by their actions, but win our compassion through their own sufferings, or incapacity to prevent their own tragic fates and/or those of their children: Nabucco, Count Walter (Luisa Miller), Rigoletto, Germont (La Traviata), Monfort (I Vespri Siciliani) King Phillip II (Don Carlo) and even the comic and blustering Mr. Ford, outdone along with Falstaff by his clearly superior-witted wife.
One might consider Miller, father of Luisa, and Simon Boccanegra to be the most enlightened and evolved fathers in the Verdian pantheon. Conversely, Amonasro (father of Aida) is the least sympathetic father, perhaps because he puts his role as king ahead of his role as father. He shares this dilemma with the father Foscari. In fact, one can see in Foscari the kernel of the future tragedies: the conflict between love and duty. Whether it is opposing national loyalties, as in Aida or I Vespri Siciliani, duties of state as in Un Ballo in Maschera, or Violetta’s choice between the dictates of her heart and the demands of the father of her beloved to conform to provincial bourgeois values, the polar forces of love and duty will be omnipresent throughout most of the Verdi corpus.
The Two Foscari is the first of the series of complex father-son relations, passing through I Masnadieri (with a good and bad son) and Luisa Miller (which will present a clear contrast between the “good” and the “bad” father) on through Monfort and his son Henri until it finds its apotheosis in the portrayal of the monumentality failed relationship between King Philip II of Spain and his son Don Carlo.
Rare is the Italian opera that lacks the triangular love stories that provided the stuff of generations of competing sopranos, bleating tenors and vindictive, thwarted baritones. But Foscari foreshadows Macbeth in its total absence of love conflicts. It is significant that in Macbeth, a tale of regicide, the good King Duncan and the good father Banquo are murdered, but the story of their sons takes on great significance. The role of Macduff is essentially reduced to one aria, devoted to mourning his murdered children. Leonora’s father in La Forza del Destino appears only for several moments at the beginning of the opera, but his accidental death sets the entire drama that follows in motion.
Verdi’s lifelong preoccupation with and failed attempts to set King Lear may have many explanations, but it is noteworthy that the greatest of all tragic fathers in Shakespeare plays intimidated even the genius who had placed so many fathers on the stage. Of the tantalizing “what ifs” of operatic history, Verdi’s unwritten King Lear is the most frustrating.
The Foscari family trio is a unified and tragic entity, bound together by their implacable enemies’ thirst for vengeance. The conflict between paternal love and the demands of the crown break the will of the aging father; the death (murder) of his son breaks his heart. Only the commanding presence of Lucrezia remains alive at the end of the Foscari reign to face the victorious enemies of her family. Brought to its end by the silent and mysterious forces that ruled “la Serenissima,” the “Most Serene Republic of Venice,” the demise of the Foscari family shows that the “daughter, wife and mistress of the sea” was all but serene.
James Conlon is the Richard Seaver Music Director of LA Opera.