Wagner is the man we usually associate with the leitmotif, that oh-it’s-him-again way of musically tagging a character. But Verdi tried his hand at it, too.
I due Foscari, a moderate success at its 1844 premiere, saw Verdi dabble with leitmotifs – and ditch a fair bit of established tradition. From today’s vantage point, it is easy to forget just how innovative the piece was. But Hamburg’s new production, the second in a trilogy of obscure Verdi stagings, makes it impossible to ignore how wonderful much of the music still is.
From the first tempestuous chords, Simone Young and the Hamburg Philharmonic grab the attention and hold it. Here are dark colours, here is wild anger, grief and tenderness. Already Verdi was moving towards the free-flowing form of his later operas. And then the leitmotifs – divided solo lower strings for the unhappy Doge, a clarinet for his doomed son Jacopo, driving violins for Jacopo’s wife, chopped phrases for the council of 10. The orchestral playing is rich, assured and thrilling.
The good operas of composers who went on to write better ones are fated to obscurity. I due Foscari has the advantage that it calls for comparatively small forces, but the disadvantage that its soprano and tenor roles are hellishly difficult to sing. In Amarilli Nizza and Giuseppe Filianoti, Hamburg has two attractive young singers able to hurl themselves into the parts with abandon and relatively few injuries. Both initially tentative, the two unfold as the opera progresses. As the ageing Doge, Andrzej Dobber sings with depth and intelligence.
To pull off the feat of three Verdi premieres in four weeks, David Alden and his team have opted for a single, versatile set (palace/theatre/prison/court), with the choir in a back gallery that can be hoisted in and out. This eliminates the need to move the chorus round the stage, leaving Alden free to concentrate on the soloists. For I due Foscari, Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes place the action in what looks like Fascist Italy of the 1940s, and Adam Silverman’s lighting keeps things suffused in gloom and shadow. Alden’s minimalistic blocking often leaves his characters repeating stock operatic gestures in the footlights.
It is less than an opera staging, but much more than a concert performance in costumes. In all, this is a far more fitting contribution to the Verdi anniversary year than yet another Traviata.
‘I Lombardi alla prima Crociata’ follows on November 10; hamburgische-staatsoper.de