Almost any singer with Plácido Domingo’s résumé would be happily retired from the stage at age 71, but Domingo is obviously not any singer. With over 140 roles performed, the Spanish tenor’s legacy is unparalleled, and that legacy is still growing. Domingo’s addition of the baritone role Francesco Foscari in Verdi’s I due Foscari will undoubtedly cause cynics to roll their eyes. Hopefully there were some in the audience for this performance, as their skepticism proved to be unwarranted. Domingo, backed by a slick new production, shone bright and portrayed the anguished Doge with incomparable vocal and dramatic skills.

Plácido Domingo as Francesco Foscari © Robert Millard
Plácido Domingo as Francesco Foscari
© Robert Millard

From his first-act monologue, it was clear that Domingo has worked hard and invested himself in this role. He did not sound like a tenor singing a Verdi baritone role; he sounded like a baritone. He covered his vowels throughout his range, but maintained a breathtaking presence and ring in his sound. Thankfully, this technique did not sound manufactured, but it was inconsistent when it came to the more frantic music, such as the dramatic confrontation scene in the final act. Here, Domingo’s signature tenor sound would come to the forefront, but this was inconsequential. The raw power of Domingo’s voice is still awe-inspiring and his vocal quality unmatched. Furthermore, Domingo dove into the character of the Doge with a convincing abandon. The sad ruler, who must see to the unjust punishment of his only remaining son, is constantly burdened throughout the opera and ends up descending into a heart-breaking madness. With his advancing age apparent, Domingo was highly sympathetic. Vocally, physically, and dramatically, Domingo’s final scene of confrontation with the Council of Ten and ensuing death was devastatingly effective.

Italian tenor Francesco Meli portrayed the Doge’s son, Jacopo Foscari. While Meli has a voice of ample power and carry, he lacked some line and subtlety, which was most apparent in his first act aria. Unfortunately, aided by Meli’s consistently loud and heroic sound, the character came across as rather two-dimensional in his defiance. Still, Meli’s voice was thrilling, and his youthful energy was appropriate. Soprano Marina Poplavskaya was powerful and agile in her portrayal of Jacopo’s wife Lucrezia Contarini. Her voice is unique with its metallic edge and strong low and middle voices. While Poplavskaya’s high notes were occasionally unsteady, they were thrilling. The significant coloratura passages in her first-act cabaletta were sung with accuracy and consistency. The rest of the cast was headed by thunderous bass Ievgen Orlov as Jacopo Lorendano, the Foscaris’ sworn enemy. He is physically imposing with a colorful, rich bass voice.

The orchestra and chorus were outstanding in every way possible. James Conlon led a swift and potent performance from the pit while being sensitive and in tune to his singers on stage. The orchestra was powerful and played Verdi’s score with spirit. The chorus was robust, intelligible, and musical. It has certainly made huge strides under resident conductor Grant Gershon.

The set was a facade of crumbling buildings, connected by a large suspended bridge, with several retractable wooden “docks” connecting on the stage for entrances and exits. The Doge’s chamber was a severely raked platform that seemed to be on the verge of plunging into the imagined canal below. The overture and entr’actes were accompanied by images of waves and dancing ink in water projected onto the large stage curtain. The somewhat drab and severe sets were offset by brilliant, colorful period costumes and props. The carnival scene at the beginning of Act III was detailed and intricate, finely performed by acrobats and supernumeraries. The effectiveness of the production is debatable. Director Thaddeus Strassberger seemed to be forecasting the deterioration of Venice with the regality of the Doge. The mechanics of the set were occasionally clunky and the torture scene in Act II was a puzzlement. But the action and the singers were always in the forefront with enough freedom of expression to bring Verdi’s drama to the audience.

While I due Foscari is not among Verdi’s greatest works (much of the solo music is unmemorable and the orchestration not as mature as in his later work), his ensembles are dramatically potent and uniquely Verdi. Verdi’s talents serve the drama well and create scenes of haunting beauty and thick tension. LA Opera’s performance provided the listener with the chance to appreciate Domingo’s art, but perhaps more importantly, to hear Verdi’s music being sung and played at an extremely high level. In and of itself, that is an occasion worth celebrating. Fans of Domingo, Verdi, or just good theatre would do well to make it to one of the two remaining performances.

****1