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  • Context is king: Verdi's self-criticism of I due Foscari overlooks extraordinary emotional insight

Context is king: Verdi's self-criticism of I due Foscari overlooks extraordinary emotional insight

The composer thought his early tragedy too bleak – but look closer and Verdi the dramatist begins to emerge from the shadows in this crucial work.

By Francesco Izzo (Music scholar and author)

12 October 2014 at 3.56pm | Comment on this article

In 1848, Giuseppe Verdi remarked: ‘In subjects sad by nature, if one is not very careful, one ends up making a funeral as, for example, in [I due] Foscari, which has too uniform a tinta and colour from the beginning to the end.’

To Verdi, the concept of tinta meant a variety of aspects granting coherence and distinctiveness to an opera. Conventional boundaries of Italian opera involved the subdivision of a score into ‘numbers’; Verdi and his predecessors often attempted to establish connections between different sections by, for example, thematic recalls.

In I due Foscari we are dealing not with occasional recalls, but with a consistent effort to employ recurring musical materials, encompassing melodic ideas, orchestral effects, harmonic gestures and tonal associations. It is possible that in 1848 Verdi looked back at the use of recurring ideas in I due Foscari and found it to be somewhat mechanical, simplistic and ‘too uniform’.

Are we too, then, bound to embrace Verdi’s after-the-fact criticism? It would be fairer and more rewarding to look at I due Foscari in its own time and context, and admire the extraordinary emotional insight of this crucial early work.

The treatment of the opera's chorus, for example, is important well beyond its motivic characterization. This was Verdi's first unsympathetic representation of political power. The Council of Ten and the Giunta's relentless praise of the Venetian Republic hardly sounds patriotic, but rather hypocritically self-aggrandizing. Their music ranges from ominous (as in the dark and chromatic opening chorus) to imposing. In the final scene they intervene copiously into the Doge's aria ‘Questa dunque è l’iniqua mercede’ ('This then is the unjust reward...')– their utterances filled not only with indifference to the suffering of the now-childless Doge, but also with uncanny cynicism.

Each of the three principal characters is annihilated by the Venetian authorities. Musically, however, each of them is delineated with distinctive strokes. Jacopo Foscari, son of the Doge, returns to Venice at great risk, facing torture, trial and another harsh sentence. He is driven by an indomitable, self-destructive love of the homeland. His entrance aria capitalizes on the time-honoured topos of the exile who returns after a long absence; the magnificent cantabile, ‘Dal più remoto esilio’ ('From the most distant place of exile'), is a love song its own right, oddly addressed not to a human being, but to a city.

Lucrezia's prayer, ‘Tu al cui sguardo onnipossente’ ('You beneath whose almighty glance all men rejoice or weep'), whose theme was previously heard in the Prelude, is characteristically accompanied by the harp, and might suggest that we are in the presence of a meek Catholic heroine. But any such doubts must soon be set aside. After Jacopo's sentence she is the only one trying (in vain, of course) to counter the actions of the Council, pleading with the Doge, trying to inject some hope into Jacopo, ostentatiously leading their children before the Council at the end of Act II and calling for revenge following the announcement of Jacopo’s death.

But the Doge has neither the power nor the strength to fulfil Lucrezia’s wish. It is clear from the beginning of the opera that he is both politically and personally isolated, his strength giving way under the weight of old age. Francesco Foscari’s fear of the Council, his physical weakness and his loneliness come across in his Act I romanza, where each of these features is countered by a sense of noble dignity. Throughout the remainder of Act I (the duet with Lucrezia) and all of Act II, one wonders whether his compliance with what is expected of his public role stems from an uncritical belief in the laws of the Republic or from his failing strength.

Francesco Foscari is Verdi’s first, extraordinarily convincing portrayal of an inexorably ageing man, for whom physical decay comes with personal isolation and political decline. In different ways, this Doge foreshadows the towering father figures in Verdi’s later operas, from Rigoletto to Philip II in Don Carlo.

This is an extract from Francesco Izzo's article 'A Uniform Tinta and Colour' in The Royal Opera's programme book, available during performances and from the ROH Shop.

I due Foscari runs 14 October–2 November 2014. Tickets are still available.

The production will be broadcast live in cinemas around the world on 27 October 2014. Find your nearest cinema.

The production is a co-production with Los Angeles Opera, Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía, Valencia, and Theater an der Wien and is given with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet, Mrs Susan A. Olde OBE, Colm and Ella Kelleher, Costas and Evi Kaplanis, and Mrs Philip Kan.

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