There are artists -- very few of them, unfortunately, but their being such rare wonders is also a large part of their appeal -- who set standards for all the rest, who show you how it's done; Michael Jordan dunking, Tiger Woods swinging, Paul Newman smiling, Marilyn Monroe walking in high heels.
Not only it's a clichè to say that they're worth the price of admission -- it's also incorrect. They're worth more -- they're priceless (even if la Scala, with its insane -- especially in this deep recession -- price policy is approaching the literally priceless level, in a bad way -- but we'll discuss this in another post).
Because the other night's premiere of I Due Foscari at la Scala was an example of this phenomenon. The playbill read like this:
Francesco Foscari: Leo Nucci
Jacopo Foscari: Fabio Sartori
Lucrezia Contarini: Manon Feubel
Jacopo Loredano: Marco Spotti
Barbarigo: Luca Casalin
Pisana: Alina Zinovjeva
Fante: Ramtin Ghazavi
Servo del Doge: Ernesto Panariello
Direttore: Stefano Ranzani
Regia: Cesare Lievi
Opera Chic had bought her ticket for this underwhelming Verdi opera randomly in the middle of Scala's disappointing 2008/09 season essentially to have the privilege, once again, to hear Leo Nucci sing. By far the best Italian opera baritone since maestro Cappuccilli's retirement, Nucci, past 60, still has the control, the power, the sheer dramatic understanding of the role that make him a unique artist.
Even in a far from perfect production such as this one -- the recycled from a few seasons ago Lievi staging, a cast that kept changing, with original conductor Carlo Montanaro replaced by Nello Santi who pulled out in weird circumstances, and finally, Ranzani; soprano Svetla Vassileva replaced by Manon Feubel.
But then we had Nucci.
Read the rest of the review by clicking below!
Besides Nucci, we had the good: Ranzani's musical vision of an unadulterated Due Foscari, embracing the piece's frequent blunt moments without the (often unsuccessful with other conductors) attempt to make the sound leaner and cleaner; Ranzani's Due Foscari is not bashful about its gutsiness and its imperfections -- Ranzani embraced the pulpy nature of this opera, choosing fast tempi without trying to excavate meaning through phrasings, choosing instead to keep a steely driven sound, maintaining a good balance with the action and the voices; he knew that early Verdi mostly has to speak for itself without trying to ram one's interpretation down the throat of material that resents that -- it's Verdi flexing his muscles and finding his voice, the mostly vulgar Ghost of Opera Yet To Come; but Ranzani knew that his man Nucci would bring the s#^t home as he always does with Verdi, and more power to Ranzani for that.
We also had the bad: a directionless direction that had the chorus -- Maestro Casoni's chorus, that's still the best thing at la Scala, except possibly for the architecture -- remain absolutely still on stage and then nervously wringing their hands and fluttering about, emotion painted (unironically) broadly as if the director had inhaled inadvertently some restorationist's paint fumes at an old chapel.
We had the not-bad: Jacopo Foscari's first aria, sung by tenor Fabio Sartori who started in decent form, and grew stronger as the work continued. His middle range has that old-school Verdi pinch to it (top notes are a bit strained).
We had the quite-bad: soprano Manon Feubel's Lucrezia Contarini (replaced Svetla Vassileva) was in poor form during her Act I, Scene 5 back at the Foscari palace. Lack of breath control and unsustainable cadenze almost sunk the soprano, but she regained excellently as the act wore on. By the final first act scene and her final duet with Leo Nucci's Francesco Foscari, she was in top form. "Tu pur lo sai che giudice" was a lovely synthesis of the two voices -- Nucci's greatness probably rubs off on his partner in the duets or something. A generous artist, he's reassuring more than threatening -- he's your smiling, vaguely absentminded Italian uncle from Emilia Romagna with the steely work ethic.
A sure standout was the resounding bass of Jacopo Loredano, sung by Marco Spotti.
After the first pause (the night lasted almost three hours, marked with two full intermissions), the production gelled a bit, and as Nucci's stage presence increased, the opera's shortcomings were less infringing, his talent more overwhelming, leading the night to a success. The first trio between the Doge, Jacopo and Lucrezia was a terrible train wreck that almost threw the entire Act into an abyss of cacophony. Ranzani barged ahead and the triplets had no choice but to drop out of syncopation. By the end of the scene however, they had recovered startlingly and finished successfully.
Nucci? Well, he's Foscari The Great sculpted with dy-no-mite in his native Appennini mountains -- a living, breathing, singing, human Mount Rushmore of Italian opera. Despite the comical sets where random objects were blown-up to mushroom-tripping induced proportions, Nucci kept the performance earthbound in a dynamic, sobering, desperately human portrayal of the Doge. Act III was simply a showcase of Nucci's captivating talent, a finale to shake the earth with wondrous emotional weight.
This is how Verdi is supposed to be sung; and even if Foscari lacks the infinite depth of Rigoletto -- Nucci's favorite role, music he still studies obsessively like an aspiring singer at the beginning of his career, humbly trying to unlock its Shakespeherian mysteries -- Nucci nevertheless makes il Doge stay with you long after you've left the opera house.
(Without Nucci, though, when it comes to Verdi's early opera, we'll stick to Nabucco next time. Thanks anyway).