The title of I due Foscari (based the play The Two Foscari by Lord Byron) tells you more than it might at first seem. One of four staged operas at this year’s Parma Verdi Festival, Verdi’s sixth opera is indeed about two members of an old Venetian patrician family. One of them is Francesco Foscari (1373–1457), who served as the doge of the Republic of Venice for thirty-four years, longer than anyone else. The other is his son Jacopo, who, as the opera begins, has returned to Venice from exile, but is soon to be exiled again—this time for life, in lieu of execution for a murder that (at least according to the opera) he did not commit.

Each Foscari is a tragic protagonist in his own right, which is why it makes sense that Byron gave them equal billing. The presence of two tragic protagonists, however, helps explain why the opera has a tone of almost unrelieved sadness. At its center is the familiar operatic conflict between love and duty writ large: as doge, Francesco has the power to intercede on his son’s behalf, but the office also compels him to respect incriminating evidence, no matter how much it pains him. A cascade of adverse developments follows Jacopo’s sentencing. He departs for exile, but soon thereafter word comes of proof of his innocence; so too, moments later, the news of his death. Still reeling over his son’s passing, Francesco is summarily ousted as doge by Venice’s Council of Ten; the historical Francesco died eight days later.

Vladimir Stoyanov, Stefan Pop, and Maria Katzarava in I due Foscari. Photo: Roberto Ricci, courtesy Teatro Regio.

The opera inherited issues from the play. As the Byron expert Peter Cochran has written, “In The Two Foscari, father and son are on the downward slope to death from the first scene onwards; there is nothing lurking to prevent the catastrophe, and thus conflict, the major ingredient of drama, is missing.” Verdi recognized the problem. A few years after the 1844 premiere in Rome, he wrote “In subjects that are inherently sad, you end up in the mortuary, as—for example—in the Foscari; [such works] have one single tint from start to finish.”

But we must not be too hard on I due Foscari. It represents the first time Verdi tackled a serious political subject, and his response looks ahead to works years in the future, such as Don Carlos and, especially, Simon Boccanegra, that also have a dark tint, if not one so uniform. Foscari’s characters are well fleshed-out, especially Francesco, who shows statesmanlike qualities in balancing governmental and familial concerns. But Jacopo, a hot-tempered, even Byronic figure, also comes to life, as does his wife, Lucrezia, who passionately pleads his cause. The opera shows Verdi experimenting with leitmotif technique by identifying characters with themes, although they are not used symphonically. And much of the music has that quintessential early Verdi vigor that, if properly harnessed, can help overcome the gloom.

The cast of I due Foscari. Photo: Roberto Ricci, courtesy Teatro Regio.

But the Parma production in the Teatro Regio by Leo Muscato could have done more. Muscato updated the time frame to the nineteenth century, which was apparent from the black frock coats worn by mysterious figures at the outset. And yet the single set was decidedly modernistic, consisting of a semi-circle against which various projections, some suggestive of Venice, were seen.

In the center was an opening that functioned as a gangplank for the moving scene in which Jacopo bids farewell to wife and children and heads into exile. In another touching moment, Francesco, stripped of power, removed the elaborate robes he wore as doge to reveal a black coat like that of any another Venetian patrician. But overall the stage picture needed more variety, and the lighting was too subdued.

Vladimir Stoyanov in I due Foscari. Photo: Roberto Ricci, courtesy Teatro Regio.

The baritone Vladimir Stoyanov gave an absorbing portrayal of Francesco, rising especially to the challenge of the final scene, in which the doge breaks free of self-imposed decorum to allow emotional expression free rein. Also excellent was the tenor Stefan Pop, who sang with ringing tone and strongly projected Jacopo’s volatile emotions. Maria Katzarava’s short-breathed delivery didn’t do justice to Lucrezia’s impassioned utterances, but Giacomo Prestia sang forbiddingly as the Foscaris’ implacable foe, Loredano.

Paolo Arrivabeni’s conducting was a mixed blessing. He showed affection for the work in the way he brought out details, and he obtained polished performances from the chorus of Parma’s Teatro Regio and the Filharmonica Arturo Toscanini. But his performance had too little of the sweep and excitement needed to keep the opera’s inherent gloom at bay.

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