An early Verdi opera, I due Foscari, has recently gained more performances especially as Placido Domingo recreates the main role. Classic Melbourne’s Peter Williams recently viewed Palace Cinema’s film of I due Foscari recorded at the Royal Opera House, having first interviewed the Australian Sam Sakker who is making his Covent Garden debut in the production …
As Doge of Venice, Foscari (Domingo) must uphold the law, even when it seeks to banish his son, Jacapo (sung by Francesco Meli) for murder. It turns out his son has been framed and is part of a plot by the Council of Ten, and the Doge is unceremoniously replaced. The drama is heightened by Jacopo’s wife (sung by Maria Agresta) often being the instigator of the action.
The opera was premiered in Rome rather than Venice, as it implied criticism of the Republic’s rulers. The setting is not the post-card Venice we know, but the debris, the walkways used during flooding, and the bleak prison behind the facades. The opulence of the costuming is in marked contrast. And even the set piece of a festival scene offers little relief from the tragedy.
The musical interest of the opera is that concentrates so intently on the main trio – the father (also the father-in-law), the son and his wife. It gives opportunities for solo, duet and trio work. Placido Domingo as the Doge is convincing in both his singing and acting. (In an interesting intermission interview, he notes that for once he is singing a role that is older than himself.) His presence is captivating and real, especially where he laments his inability to help his son.
Francesco Meli, as the doomed son, struggled a little in the opening, and having to sing trapped in a prison cage which was being lowered may have been the reason. Later he was able to display the bright ringing quality of his tenor with excellent results. Sam Sakker brought a great stage presence and a strong clear voice to his role secondo tenore as Barbarigo, a Senator.
Maria Agresta’s Lucrezia was powerfully sung and well-acted through out. Her final scene at the death of her husband saw an aria which seemed to hearken back to a stock “Mad Scene” aria. But it was wonderfully delivered, then spoilt by the stage direction (absent in the score) to go and drown her son! It was a step too far, even in a production where we had torture scenes that brought audible gasps from audience.
The major delight of the production was in the arias, duets and trios. They gave scope for the human drama – and it was noted in the interviews how often the Father-Son, Father-Daughter (here -in-law) theme occurs in Verdi’s works. Also, the orchestra under the energetic conductor, Antonio Pappano, was outstanding in suggesting the “leitmotifs” of the characters, as well as conveying the raw, often dark and anguished, emotions of the score.
Whilst there were one or two moments when the narrow camera focus on the singers’ faces showed them looking at the conductor, (and a couple of times showed Lucrezia’s microphone) the filming was excellent. In an interview with tenor Sam Sakker, he mentions that the film’s director was in attendance for at least six rehearsals. This is the first Covent Garden film I have seen and I enjoyed the fact that the camera was not overly on the face of the singer. It allowed for the whole character or grouping to be shown, thus revealing more. (One criticism I have of The Met filming is that the concentration on the face leaves little sense of the overall action taking place on stage, so that we do not always see the reactions to what is going on). The filming here was also more unobtrusive than at The Met – and Sam Sakker mentioned that it was also unobtrusive for the singers.
Yes, the action of the third act is telescoped to the point of almost losing dramatic sense, yes, the set creaks at times, but the set pieces and the singing make this a worthy opening of the filmed Convent Garden series. Certainly, a must see, if you like Domingo or Verdi. And the season continues with stellar castings including Netrebko in La Boheme, Kaufman in Andrea Chenier and Terfel in The Flying Dutchman.
Interview via Skype with Sam Sakker.
Sam Sakker recently left Australia to study in London with the assistance of the Jette Parker Young Artists Program. He is already enjoying success at Covent Garden but, contrary to many tenors before him, is quite self-effacing – he didn’t mention that he actually opened I due Foscari!
The Jette Parker Young Artists Program is designed to support the artistic development of young singers at the beginning of their career. They are employed as salaried members of the Royal Opera over a two-year period, during which time they are immersed in the life of the Royal Opera House to experience both the arts and the business of being a professional opera singer.
Sakker sees the course as “an investment in the future”. In a previous interview before leaving, he spoke about discovering paths that he had not imagined despite already working as an opera singer. (He has had a very successful run as Alfredo in a New Zealand production of La Traviata, with one review stating his voice was “thrilling”.)
Asked about how difficult it is to live and work in England as compared with Australia, he did not see it as a comparison. He finds the Royal Opera an “amazing house” with a “sense of extreme professionalism in all areas”. There is a real sense of being the best at what they do. And, appearing with Placido Domingo in I due Foscari, he found the star to be helpful and generous. Domingo still radiated energy, Sakker said, and it was “daunting” to sing next to him. The conductor Antonio Pappano was “very generous and appreciative”.
And the very focused nature of working at the ROH and that sense of collaboration gave full meaning to the “sum being more than the parts”.
Sakker has always been involved in singing – in choirs, opera companies, and so on – so it was always what he saw as a career. When asked about favourite singers, he had a long list of wonderful tenors. His favourite roles are from Puccini and Verdi, with a special favourite The Girl of the Golden West and roles he would like to perform include Don Jose in Carmen and Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon.
On the subject of new paths, he has just finished a recital of lieder / art songs. The course has enabled him to engage more strongly with the text, story and character appropriate of a wide range of challenging works, not least becoming fluent in the languages. Students put in requests for assistance in a specific area and he has found that most of his have been accepted, including help with the Russian needed for Rachmaninoff songs. Held in the Crush Room of the ROH, Sakker’s recital was very well received, with one audience member, taken with his ability to portray character in song, asking if he could sing opera!
It’s a busy time for the singer – there were four concerts and performances in six days – so he is also learning how to summon and use energy wisely. He is currently learning some of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in preparation for a performance of the Royal Ballet. Also, scheduled are performances in Un Ballo in Maschera, Die Zauberflote and La Traviata at the ROH.
A well as the performances, covering roles and smaller roles on stage, there is daily coaching in languages, stagecraft and vocal techniques. Whilst Sakker was not prepared to specify a “dream job” at the moment, there is obviously much to suggest that he will fulfill his wish to be employed in the ever-changing industry that is opera.
Read more about Sam Sakker and a Benefit organised for him earlier this year, featuring well-known names in opera.
The picture shows Plácido Domingo and Samuel Sakker in I due Foscari for The Royal Opera © ROH/Catherine Ashmore, 2014