Marina Poplavskaya as Lucrezia Contarini and Plácido Domingo as… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
The start of fire season and opera season in Los Angeles often coincide. It's weird — a scheduling remnant from the days when the Los Angeles Opera and Los Angeles Philharmonic shared the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and bickered over dates — but it works. The late-summer air is hot and dry, toxic with smoke. People are on edge. Sensitivities are heightened. Emotions flare. Jerks cut you off on the freeway. That's neither an improper apocalyptic atmosphere nor apoplectic state in which to receive opera.
L.A. Opera opened its season Saturday with a Verdi rarity, "The Two Foscari," and a gala it had dubbed, maybe a little too presciently, "Ignite." The new season seems, overall, more cautious than usual, the company watching its pennies. But Saturday in the Pavilion proved a bold beginning nonetheless. "Foscari" is a novelty; the production is new; the cast is headed by Plácido Domingo, impressive still in his 140th role. And with a spectacular performance by soprano Marina Poplavskaya, L.A. Opera clearly meant to, you might say, light a fire under "Foscari."
Why in the world "Foscari"? A dozen people asked me Saturday if I had seen it staged before. I hadn't, and I'd be surprised if a dozen people in the Pavilion audience had either. The last production in the U.S. was 40 years ago in Chicago. But with Verdi's 200th birthday next year, the opera world is gearing up big time to celebrate one of the art form's greatest composers. And that is bound to include a considerable amount of attention to the neglected early operas, if for no other reason than it can be hard to make "La Traviata" or "Aida" feel fresh.
PHOTOS: Verdi's 'The Two Foscari'
"Foscari" was Verdi's sixth opera. He would write 10 more before "Rigoletto," which began what is considered his middle period and was his first masterpiece. Then came 10 or 12 (depending upon whether you count major revisions as new works) more each, with only a couple of exceptions, greater than the last.
Verdi called his long apprenticeship his galley years. Italian opera had become rigidly formalized in its shapes of arias and ensemble numbers. Political censors controlled librettos. Italian audiences then were as volatile as European soccer fans are today. But step by step, some careful and some astonishingly daring, Verdi moved opera into a new realm of theatrical immediacy, emotional insight and musical sophistication.
"Foscari" turns out to be one such compelling step. Musically, this is inimitable, irresistible Verdi. A few bars into the opera's prologue already hints of the "Dies Irae" from his late Requiem. Many, many more moments anticipate later operas. Wonderful instrumental passages are the work of an inveterate experimenter.
But this is also the bitter work of a devastated 31-year-old composer who had recently lost his wife and both their infant children. The opera's theme is that there is no justice in the world. And parents can't do a damn thing about it.
Adapted from a historical play by Lord Byron, the libretto portrays the doddering 15th century Doge of Venice, Francesco Foscari, attempting to hang on to power at 84. His only surviving son has been accused of murder, and although Jacopo is innocent, the evidence is against him. Francesco puts the law above love, ignoring the pleas of Jacopo's passionate wife, Lucrezia. Jacopo dies as he heads out to his exile. Francesco perishes of a broken heart.
Thaddeus Strassberger's new production takes a ghoulishly gloomy approach. Venice is a tottering kingdom. Kevin Knight's disconcerting set shows the decrepit shells of buildings barely held up by stilts. Mattie Ullrich's high-style costumes suggest a sci-fi alternate-universe Renaissance. Bruno Poet's lighting is murky. The Venetian carnival scene, which Verdi intended to lighten the atmosphere before he lowered the tragic boom, is here a grand guignol extravaganza.
PHOTOS: Verdi's 'The Two Foscari'
At the time he wrote "Foscari," Verdi had begun thinking about a "King Lear" (which he never wrote), and that is how Domingo approaches Francesco — an old man no longer in the full grip of his senses. The role is another new baritone part for a tenor becoming increasingly comfortable in the lower reach of his voice but also able to ring out brightly in the upper baritone range.
A sensation in an L.A. Opera "Traviata" three years ago, Poplavskaya is quickly becoming the most exciting Verdi soprano on the scene. The composer was already writing knockout arias here, and although the Russian soprano and conductor James Conlon did not always sound in sync, Poplavskaya became the soaring, searing, penetrating conscious of the opera.
As Jacopo, tenor Francesco Meli remained strongly stentorian despite all he had to overcome in a character who can seem more whiny than heroic. That included singing in a suspended cage. Strassberger turns Jacopo's prison monologue, where he is haunted by nightmares, into a vivid torture scene.