Continuing their exploration into corners of the repertoire that are scarcely ever done, NTR  ZaterdagMatinee opened their 2016-2017 opera series with Verdi’s I due Foscari. Conductor Giancarlo Andretta led the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, the Netherlands Radio Choir and a fine line-up of soloists in a performance so enthralling it had me convinced that this early Verdi work deserves far more than the very occasional revivals it gets.

Tamara Wilson © Stacey Dershem
Tamara Wilson
© Stacey Dershem

I due Foscari was well received when it first premiered in Rome in November 1844, but it never gained the popularity that Ernani, premiered six months earlier in Venice, enjoyed. There have been a number of high-profile revivals in recent years following Plácido Domingo’s decision to take on the role of the Doge, as a vehicle to his renewed career as a baritone, but otherwise, performances remain a rarity.

Admittedly, the action is very static with little development throughout the opera: in 15th-century Venice, Jacopo Foscari, the only son of the Doge Francesco Foscari, is wrongly accused of murder and condemned to exile by the Council of Ten. Both him and his wife, Lucrezia Contarini, beg the weak-willed Doge to intervene, but he refuses. Jacopo dies in exile. The Council of Ten forces Francesco to abdicate and he dies of sorrow.

There is however much to enjoy from the score that, at many moments, carries the seeds of later masterpieces. The gripping duet between Francesco and Lucrezia of Act I, for example, paves the way to the duet between Violetta and Germont père in La traviata. From the fury of the first movements of the overture to a passage with rhythmic lapping depicting the waters of the Grand Canal, the instrumental music is often vividly expressive. The Netherlands Radio Choir got to sing the only two joyous passages of the score: the gondoliers' barcarolle and the cheering crowd of St Mark's Square. They did so superbly. Everywhere else, the score is dark-hued, rendering the sombre mood of the storyline. Andretta appeared to relish it, and he drew infinite nuances from the low strings and brass of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic in an electrifying performance.

Except perhaps for the Doge Francesco Foscari, the characters feel roughly drafted rather than finely drawn by libretist Francesco Piave. It must undoubtedly be a challenge for the three main protagonists to depict believable characters beyond the treacherously difficult music. The cast gathered at the Concertgebouw for this matinee was up to the challenge.

Technically-assured and armed with a resonant and dark-timbre baritone, Sebastian Catana excelled in conveying the descent of the Doge from the sorrow of his Act I romanza to the infinite tragedy of his last scene. As Lucrezia, Tamara Wilson’s thrilling spinto soprano effortlesly tackled the fiendish coloratura the composer wrote for the role. Throwing in some splendid pianissimi for good measure, the latest recipient of the Richard Tucker Award managed to portray a more complex and moving character than the fiery shrew that the tornado-like music could at first suggest. One might have ideally asked more subtlety from Roberto de Biasio at times, but his tenor certainly had the right heft and virile timbre for the role of Jacopo.