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the two foscari

22 may 2020

"Nothing can sympathize with a Foscari / Not even a Foscari," says the hero of Byron's 1821 tragedy The Two Foscari (484). Bad news for young Jacopo Foscari, because he's on trial for his life, and one of his judges, the Doge of Venice, is his own father.

Byron's plot is simple enough. Jacopo lies chained in a Venetian prison, waiting for the "Ten" who rule the place to make up their minds what to do with him. Is his father Francis going to wear his Doge hat, or his dad hat? "I am more citizen than either," Francis intones (Act 2, Scene 1; p. 503). The system is the system and must proceed. But another of the judges, Loredano, has his thumb on the scales of justice, because he has long suspected Francis of poisoning his father and uncle in order to become Doge in the first place. Vendetta!

Jacopo could have run far away. Heck, even if convicted, his sentence is likely to be commuted to a lifetime paid vacation on the island of Crete. But he's one of those Byronic heroes who loves his native soil, or gondolas or rising damp or whatever, so much that he'd rather fester by the Bridge of Sighs than live free anywhere else. Jacopo is a crashing bore on the subject of Home Sweet Venice. Most of all, Jacopo misses the Venetian swimming scene. One probably hears a bit of Byron, the world-class swimmer, in Jacopo's best speech:

My way to shells and sea-weed, all unseen
By those above, till they waxed fearful; then
Returning with my grasp full of such tokens
As showed that I had searched the deep: exulting
With a far-dashing stroke, and, drawing deep
The long-suspended breath, again I spurned
The foam which broke around me, and pursued
My track like a sea-bird. (Act 1, Scene 1; pp. 482-483)
Nineteenth-century "closet drama" lived for this kind of descriptive (and highly personal) passage, rather than for any onstage action. And even prosaic drama is wanting in The Two Foscari. It's never really quite clear whether Jacopo is guilty of whatever crime is long-past by the time the curtain rises, and since the crux of the action boils down whether he'll consent to be exiled, the stakes are low, considering the amount of blank-verse emoting that the characters expend on them.

It's thus somewhat surprising that Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave would turn to The Two Foscari as the source material for an opera. But Byron was a can't-miss brand name in the early 19th century, and the setting was evocative enough. Piave and Verdi set to work in 1844, early in Verdi's career, coming off their monster hit Ernani. Where Ernani was full of lacerating, full-throated confrontations, I Due Foscari settles into a succession of characters whining about their eminently preventable fates. The music seems so inventive and appealing that one might conclude that, for once, a musical masterpiece has been kept out of the center of the repertoire by dramatic tepidness. But maybe the score of I Due Foscari isn't quite as interesting to professional ears as it is to my untrained sensibilities.

I saw I Due Foscari recently in a stream of a production staged in Parma just before the pandemic lockdown. Baritone Vladimir Stoyanov, in lovely pure voice, was clearly an audience favorite as the Doge, with Stefan Pop fine as the homesick Jacopo and Maria Katzarava strong as his wife Lucrezia (Byron called her Marina), futile in her attempts to get Jacopo to relocate to Crete. Minimalist staging at least didn't interfere with the music, though there was nothing going on much worth watching. Perhaps I Due Foscari is one of those pieces it's better to listen to than to watch – or try to follow the libretto.

George Gordon, Lord Byron. The Two Foscari. 1821. In The Dramatic Works of Lord Byron. New York: Blake, 1840. 475-540.