I due Foscari
In 1844 Giuseppe Verdi had the task of writing his first opera for the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. The material he suggested for it was the drama The Two Foscari by Lord Byron which presents not the carnival atmosphere of the city of Venice with all its romantic amorous adventures, but focuses instead on the strict political laws and hierarchies of the Serenissima. However, it depicts the famous Council of Ten as gullible and the aristocracy as vindictive and scheming, for which reasons the suggestion was rejected by the censor. In its place, Verdi composed the opera Ernani for Venice; he was able to present I due Foscari on 4 November 1844 at the Teatro Argentino in Rome.
The Venetian doge Francesco Foscari is forced to send his son Jacopo into exile because he has been accused of murder. However, the accusation is in fact a plot hatched by his enemy Loredano. Foscari is torn between his love for his son and his duty as a doge. Lucrezia, Jacopo’s wife, is convinced of her husband’s innocence and intends to accompany him into exile, but she is not permitted to do so. Jacopo is already on board the galley that will take him to Crete when a letter reaches Francesco that proves his innocence. But it is too late: Jacopo has died on the galley. Francesco now has no choice but to abdicate as doge. This disgrace and the loss of his son break his heart and he dies.
Byron’s drama is a play for a studio theatre, and as such unsuitable for adaptation as grand opera. Verdi therefore instructed his librettist Francesco Maria Piave to add some exciting scenes: “Rack your brains and invent something to cause a bit of a stir.” Despite large-scale choral scenes and outbreaks of fierce emotion, the work retains its intimate character. It is precisely for this reason that I due Foscari enabled Verdi to revitalise his style, his characterisation becoming sharper and more compact. Verdi used themes here that are connected to the characters and give the work, with its transparent orchestration, artistic structure. By doing so, he offers an alternative to Richard Wagner’s concurrently developed leitmotif technique, although this has gone largely unnoticed by music historians.