It did not surprise me that this was only the thirteenth performance of I Due Foscari at the Royal Opera House. It is not one of Verdi's masterpieces, though I do think it would be possible to make a more convincing case for it. The major problem with the work is that so little happens. Foscari's son Jacapo is condemned to exile from Venice early in Act 1 but takes until the middle of Act 3 to actually go. It must surely qualify as one of the longest departure scenes in operatic history. To fill in the somewhat lengthy gap between decision and execution Jacopo (Francesco Meli), Mrs Jacopo (Maria Agresta) and Father Jacopo (Placido Domingo) sing a number of arias and ensembles bemoaning the miserable situation in which they find themselves. As a rehearsal for later Verdian struggles between public duty and private feeling it's mildly interesting, as a dramatic narrative in itself it really isn't. This performance didn't have the finest line up of soloists but I suspect even with that it would be a struggle to make of this more than generic Verdi – pleasant to listen to but lacking the punch and depth of Traviata or Don Carlo or Falstaff. As a work it is just all rather unmemorable.
Perhaps understandably director Thaddeus Strassberger (making his house debut) seems to feel that the staging must make up with activity and excitement what is lacking in the work. The result is a production of incessant movement which quickly becomes infuriating. Agresta is not the finest Verdian soprano I've heard, but it is a bit much to have the scrim distractingly descending while she's trying to deliver her big Act 3 number. Meli is a fine Verdian tenor, thus making it more damning that most of his numbers are unhelpfully accompanied by prison cages rising and falling and/or extras roaming purposelessly about the set. Only when Domingo is on stage does everything stop – and Domingo's performance does not really justify this special treatment. By the conclusion I was finding it quite hard not to laugh at all the wandering about and the endless delays of the libretto, and may have been gaping incredulously by the time Agresta suddenly seemed to be drowning her children assisted by a supernumary nurse and two convenient puddles which appeared as if from nowhere at either corner of the stage. Not a production that should be revived.
The banner casting for this run is obviously Placido Domingo as Foscari Snr, resulting in dubiously inflated prices. At the top of the voice there is a remarkable power considering he's 73, and one which demonstrates what a fine tenor he was. In the middle the voice is at times perilously close to a bark – there's slightly more weight to it than that term implies, but not enough warmth or flexibility (the comparison with Meli's ringing and, yes, heroic, timbre is telling). At the bottom of the part and in the ensembles Domingo essentially disappears. And there is a further problem. As the evening proceeds it becomes clear that Domingo can only really do this at one pace – thus the end, not one of Verdi's finest in any case, slows to something which feels like a crawl, any dramatic tension which might have been gathered leeching out. The finest vocal performance is provided by Meli's Jacopo who after a quiet start (understandable given he's hanging in midair in one of the aforementioned cages) delivers a commanding performance. As his wife, Agresta is solid and often powerful but doesn't have quite the security or presence. The singing and playing of the Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra is as usual very fine. Pappano could I thought have given more drive to the work, but was, I suspect, to some degree hampered by the determination of the audience to applaud every aria (or in the case of a gentleman somewhere behind me in the Gods to shout “Bravo” at an annoyingly loud volume) and Domingo's capacities.
Overall, this was my second not very successful evening of what has so far been an indifferent autumn season. Owing to the fact that there is only one non-week night performance of Idomeneo scheduled (something that's been a regrettable feature of House planning lately and which creates barriers for those of us not resident in London, and can't, I shouldn't think, be that helpful for many in London) I will not be back at the House till I finally catch up with L'elisir d'amore in December. Of that, thank goodness, I have heard good reports on past outings.