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West Bay Opera’s Journey to Venice With an Early Verdi

January 2, 2019

Most popular opera composers have one or two works, usually early ones, that are rarely performed. For Puccini there is Edgar; for Bizet there is Djamileh, for Wagner, there is Die Feen.

Giuseppe Verdi is no exception, and opera fans may be justly proud to have caught somewhere, sometime a production of Un giorno di regno or possibly Verdi’s first, Oberto. Show of hands, please, of those who have experienced a live performance of I due Foscari (The two Foscari); even after my centuries of multicontinental opera exploration, I cannot claim that distinction.

But now, thanks to José Luis Moscovich, that’s about to change as his West Bay Opera is presenting performances on Feb. 15, 17, 23, and 24, in Palo Alto’s Lucie Stern Theatre.

Based on the 1821 historical play by Lord Byron, The Two Foscari tells the story of a 15th-century Venetian ruler, Doge Francesco Foscari, and his son Jacopo. The opera, written in Verdi’s early burst of creativity, premiered in 1844, right after his I Lombardi and in the same year as Giovanna d’Arco.

Moscovich says that beyond his love of Strauss, Wagner, and Puccini, “my desert island choice would most likely be a Verdi opera (Otello?). While there are reasons why I due Foscari is not the most-performed Verdi today, there are many moments in it that remind me of why I’d take Verdi to the island with me.

“These are the roots of Verdi, and they display his genius with a particularly appealing clarity, his bel canto core, his dramatic fire, his elegance. The powerful score has beautiful arias, ensembles and choral music and it requires virtuosic singing and orchestral playing. We present it unabridged and fully staged, set in the splendor of early Renaissance Venice.”

Moscovich conducts, stage direction is by Richard Harrell. Costumes are by Callie Floor; sets by Peter Crompton; lighting design by Steven Mannshardt; video projections by Frédéric Boulay.

In the cast:

Francesco Foscari - Jason Duika
Lucrezia Contarini - Christina Major
Jacopo Foscari - Nathan Granner
Loredano - Ben Brady
Barbarigo - Carmello Tringali
Pisana - Katia Hayati

Duika, who made his West Bay Opera debut as Marcello in La bohème, is taking on a role that has challenged some famous singers at rare performances of the opera, perhaps most notably in recent years, Placido Domingo, in his baritonal incarnation. (Going the other way, Carlo Bergonzi, who started as a baritone, sang the role famously when he was already a great tenor.)

Moscovich is enthusiastic about Duika’s “remarkable, ringing voice throughout the range, ideally suited for Francesco’s role. Unlike the videos from Covent Garden and Teatro alla Scala with Domingo, people will actually hear his voice in the big ensembles, just the way the score seems to indicate Verdi intended it, and the way I remember it from my first hearing of the work at the Teatro Colón in the 1970s.”

The female lead, Lucrezia, is Jacopo Foscari’s wife, the role providing yet another debut for Christina Major, whose WBO Norma preceded her Teatro Colón debut in that grand role last month, on the recommendation of Buenos Aires-native Moscovich. Major has a “personal take” on Lucrezia:

I understand her as she is very much me in life. Loyal, tender, demanding, and powerful when called for, and ultimately, she will be heard no matter what, especially when it comes to her family. As I am an avid ice hockey player, I could easily see Lucrezia being the best teammate as she would have my back no matter what!

While she [Lucrezia] isn’t as long of a sing as Norma, the passages require clear, precise, and fast coloratura all while not losing the roundness, edge, and power that Verdi calls for. The vocal explosions of low to high are unforgiving to a voice not built for it. The melodies are quite stunning but not predictable in their path, which keeps the singer on their toes as far as phrasing to get the ultimate dramatic result.

Moscovich’s happy response: “I find it very rewarding that our artists are being considered for international-level houses. I’m hoping Christina will sing Lucrezia in Europe too. There aren’t that many sopranos who have it in their repertoire.”

Brady has just scored the top prize at the Met auditions in San Francisco. Granner, who will sing the challenging role of the “other Foscari” (the Doge’s son), sang Rodolfo in Palo Alto, and will be appearing with Opera Parallèle soon.

The chorus for the production will be up to 30 singers, just about capacity for the Lucie Stern Theatre’s stage.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].