2008: I due Foscari
Program notes by Luke Jensen
On February 29, 1844, shortly before the premiere of Ernani in Venice, Verdi signed a contract for an opera to be produced later that fall in Rome. No details of the contract remain, but I due Foscari was the result. Antonio Lanari, son of the more famous impresario Alessandro, presumably signed the contract with Verdi as he made all the local arrangements for this new work at the Teatro Argentina in Rome.
Lanari’s first season at the Teatro Argentina was that spring during which he produced Ernani with great success, heightening anticipation for Verdi’s new work. Giovanni Ricordi, Verdi’s main publisher, happened to be passing through Rome during the performances of Ernani. During that trip, he likely secured publication and performance rights for the new opera if he had not done so already.
Three-way agreements involving composer, local impresario, and publisher became the norm in Verdi’s early career. For Foscari, Ricordi held all publication and subsequent performance rights with royalties due to the composer for future productions. He also had the responsibility of preparing all of the musical materials for the premiere.
Verdi had been thinking of composing an opera based on Lord Byron’s play, The Two Foscari, before settling on Ernani. Indeed, the librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, had already started to work on Foscari, for Venice, but the management of the Teatro La Fenice, venue for Ernani’s first production, turned it down. They did not want to offend the prominent Venetian Loredan and Barbarigo families with unflattering portrayals of their fifteenth-century ancestors.
Before finalizing the libretto, it had to pass the scrutiny of the Roman censors. They had already turned down Lorenzino de’ Medici, another libretto by Piave. But Foscari passed muster and, with approval from the censors, Piave completed the libretto, and it arrived in Verdi’s hands on May 14, 1844.
I due Foscari had been a potential opera for several months, but at this point in his career, Verdi rarely made any significant progress in composing a work until after he reached an agreement regarding his compensation and commitment for the initial production, stipulations about the libretto and the librettist, some indication about the disposition of subsequent performance rights, and the composer’s requirements for the cast of the premiere. With the completed libretto in May, Verdi began to work most earnestly on the opera with everything in place except the final decisions about the cast.
On July 22nd 1844, Verdi wrote to Lanari regarding the cast: “I will need three principal parts: Barbieri, Roppa, De Bassini, three secondary parts, a basso profondo, a tenor, and a soprano.”
Marianna Barbieri-Nini was the first Lucrezia, Giacomo Roppa the first Jacopo Foscari, and Achille De Bassini, Francesco Foscari. Barbieri-Nini later appeared as Verdi’s first lady Macbeth and as Gulnara in the premiere of Il corsaro. De Bassini later sang in the premieres of Corsaro, Luisa Miller, and La forza del Destino. Roppa sang only this one Verdi premiere.
During rehearsals, Verdi struggled with the tenor role and rewrote portions of it. Before traveling to Rome he sent an earlier version of “No, non morraicheiperfidi” to Ricordi who forwarded it to associates in London and Paris; and while Ricordi made the changes before he published the piano-vocal score, the never performed earlier version was published by associates in London and Paris. No clear evidence indicates whether the changes were precipitated by the tenor’s performance – he never sang another Verdi premiere – or if the composer was struggling with the drama itself. In either case, the result was a more nuanced portrayal of Jacopi Foscari.
I due Foscari premiered on November 3, 1844. It was well received but did not garner the enthusiasm Verdi had come to expect. A year later, Donizetti commented on a performance he saw in Vienna saying that it showed Verdi at his best “in fits and starts.” Several years later, Verdi complained that it had “too unvarying a color from beginning to end.” But the public enjoyed this opera through the 1840s and beyond, as it became a regular feature in opera houses throughout Italy.