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Los Angeles Opera takes fresh look at Verdi's 'The Two Foscari'

A work based on a play by Lord Byron stars Plácido Domingo as a Venetian doge torn between love and dutyl. Francesco Meli and Marina Poplavskaya also star.

September 07, 2012|By Diane Haithman
  • Conductor James Conlon, left, tenor Placido Domingo and director Thaddeus Strassberger on the set of "The Two Foscari" at the Music Center in Los Angeles.
Conductor James Conlon, left, tenor Placido Domingo and director Thaddeus… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)

Only in L.A.: Giuseppe Verdi's 1844 opera "The Two Foscari" meets the CBS game show "The Price Is Right. "

On a recent day backstage at CBS Television City, one wall was dominated by a painting of sunny Venice, Italy, a set for Los Angeles Opera's production of "Foscari," a rarely produced work that opens the company's 2012-13 season Saturday.

And slightly in front of this Venice scene stands the game board for a "Price Is Right" game called Switcheroo. Move those numbers into the correct positions on the board and you can win a travel mug, a panini press or a brand new car!

Actually, Los Angeles Opera has been renting set construction space at Television City for several years, just a convenient option when producing live performance in a town dominated by the entertainment industry. And though the creative forces behind "The Two Foscari" aren't trying to win prizes on a game show, they're gambling that the opera world needs a fresh look at a tragic Verdi opera that has not enjoyed a fully staged production in the U.S. since 1972.

Verdi's sixth opera, based on Lord Byron's historical play, tells the story of an aging doge, Francesco Foscari (Plácido Domingo), torn between duty and love when his son Jacopo (Francesco Meli) is accused of a crime he didn't commit. The cast also includes Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya.

Though Verdi hoped to debut "I Due Foscari" (its Italian name) at Venice's La Fenice hall, the Republic of Venice rejected the opera's unflattering portrait of Venetian nobility and the real-life Foscari family, so it premiered in Rome.

A co-production with three European opera companies, "Foscari" is being conducted by company musical director James Conlon and directed by American Thaddeus Strassberger, making his L.A. Opera debut overseeing scenic designer Kevin Knight, costume designer Mattie Ullrich and lighting designer Bruno Poet.

To expand the opera's reach, L.A. Opera will present a one-night-only concert performance at Orange County's Segerstrom Center on Oct. 1, as the inaugural presentation of its Off Grand initiative to showcase operatic music beyond downtown.

During a CBS visit, Strassberger was getting his first glimpse of set pieces including a wicked-looking mechanized torture cage. The torture machine is not the only special effect: Expect real water, a flying angel, glowing nuns and a professional fire-breather. Strassberger had seen scale models of the set at Knight's studio in London, but "to see it full size is always exciting," he says.

Visually, this will be an uneasy, ominous Venice. "In the Byron play, Venice is sort of a figment of people's imagination, held up by sheer willpower," Strassberger says. "The water is a mirror that sort of reflects back the beauty that's below, but it's quite literally a city built on stilts in the middle of the mud. In the case of both the architecture and the political system, there are rotten supports that are about to collapse at any time."

Ullrich says the theme of festering beauty will be apparent in the costumes. On a recent afternoon at the opera company's costume shop downtown on Alameda Street, Ullrich showed off the stained white undergarments that will peek from beneath the elegant silk wool robes of the Junta, the men passing judgment on Foscari the son. "They have these beautiful pristine costumes, but they have these rotten slips," she said.

Ullrich added that though the setting has not been updated to any modern period in history, she has blended 19th century Venice with contemporary high-fashion shapes and fabrics. Masks for frighteningly fanciful characters such as the fire-breather borrow from today's steampunk culture, though Ullrich avoids using the word to avoid rigid limits on her style. "The way you could describe it is goth and emo with Victorian elements and brown leather and brass," she says.

Emphasizing the link between opera and high fashion, L.A. Opera partnered with Bloomingdale's for "Dress the Fantasy," a panel discussion featuring Ullrich in conversation with Stephanie Solomon, Bloomingdale's fashion director. While visitors sipped peach martinis, the panelists discussed the ways in which theatrical costume design has influenced today's designs.

There's an obvious reason to present Verdi as part of the new opera season: 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the births of Verdi and of Richard Wagner, whom L.A. Opera celebrated in 2009-10 with an ambitious "Ring" cycle. More Wagner will come to L.A. in March with "The Flying Dutchman." (It's a big season for opera anniversaries: British composer Benjamin Britten was born in 1913.)

But Domingo and Conlon have more personal reasons for choosing "Foscari" over a popular Verdi work such as "Rigoletto" or "La Traviata." "Foscari" offers the tenor a chance to explore his baritone range in a part that marks the 140th role for the 71-year-old singer as well as the 45th anniversary of his L.A. Opera debut.

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