Even among Verdi’s early works, his sixth opera, I Due Foscari, is a rarity. Compared to Nabucco or Ernani, it takes a long while to launch – I would say it actually does it in a powerful closing scene. Some (Verdi included) blame the libretto inspired in Lord Byron’s dramatically tame play. Although Piave basically repeats the same structure for every scene – someone interrupts something that eventually happens anyway – the historical events around Venice’s Doge Francesco Foscari are indeed operatic material. I would rather blame Verdi himself, who was not at his more melodically inspired and not really able to depict the dramatic situations – the first performances in Vienna had the audience laughing at a waltz reminiscent of Johann Strauss in one very depressing scene.
In any case, when you have a cast up to the challenging vocal parts, it can be a rewarding experience. The Deutsche Oper should be praised by its serious attempt of resurrecting the opera. Conductor Roberto Rizzi Brignoli, for instance, seemed to be determined to prove that there is drama from bar one in the score. With the help of of a fully engaged orchestra and top-class choral singing, he certainly fared better than the bureaucratic Lamberto Gardelli in his studio recording with the ORF orchestra. However, there was a price to pay for the intensity, which was loudness. Without that, the distinguished cast here gathered could be even more convincing.
American soprano Angela Meade, who has made me an admirer since an impressively sung Semiramide a couple of years ago, showed Berlin what golden age is about. Her lyric soprano has gained richness and power without any loss of clarity, offering round, creamy, unforced tones throughout. Although Katia Ricciarelli’s soprano is more immediately seductive in the studio recording, Meade is simply more at ease with the demands and excitingly coped with faster tempi. She could not restrain herself from wowing the audience with an extra in-alt, Caballé-ian high pianissimi and kilometrically long phrases without breathing pauses. The way she presided over ensembles was particularly chilling. Although she is not the sacro-fuoco kind of singer, she is far from musically bland either – and sang the role of Lucrezia Conterini with the necessary passion. Exhilarating as her performance was, I wish that she and the conductor could relax a bit more for her to sculpt a bit more her phrasing, as Ricciarelli often could do – in other words, giving the music and the text a bit more time. But that’s me trying to make something truly exceptional a bit more believable for my 12 or 13 readers. In Gardelli’s CDs José Carreras takes the role of Jacopo Foscari, singing with unbridled impetuosity. Healthy in its exuberant high notes as the Spanish tenor’s recording is, I am afraid I prefer Ramón Vargas’s more sensitive and restrained approach. His voice is on the light side for this role, but the tonal quality is so pleasing and he phrases with such good taste that the trade-off is more than worthwhile. It is amazing that the 70-year-old Leo Nucci still sings with such firmness and power, but – even in his prime his singing was never warm, noble and smooth as Piero Cappuccilli’s (again in Gardelli’s CDs). What made his Foscari interesting was his high theatrical voltage – and that he’s still got. The dramatic solo when the Doge is asked to resign in act III was delivered with formidable intensity, bringing the house down with shouts of bravo and applause. I cannot say how complete this performance was, but I have missed the arioso Oh, morte fossi allora for the baritone in the scene that opens the second part of act III. I might be wrong – I don’t intend to seem a connoisseur of early Verdi… Last but not least, Tobias Kehrer deserves special mention – his rock-solid, forceful, dark bass will procure him a great career. Although his Italian is good enough, if he could be a little bit more idiomatic, he could certainly navigate the Italian repertoire, as René Pape has done.