Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Talented Mr. Domingo

January 25, 2010

Plácido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra with Adrianne Pieczonka and Marcello Giordani
Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera 2010

The main event last weekend was a trip to New York for the latest installment of Keeping Up with Plácido Domingo. Not unlike Savoir-Faire, the legendary tenor is indeed everywhere working on careers he’s taken on in musically related, but secondary, fields – conducting, arts company management, and being a baritone. Specifically, Domingo is appearing in two productions at The Metropolitan Opera this month. He’s conducting Verdi’s Stiffelio while also appearing in the baritone leading role of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. Of course, this has been all over what’s left of the papers and the blogosphere with everyone from Anne Midgette and Daniel Wakin to Lisa Hirsch questioning whether or not Mr. Domingo has overextended himself particularly in light of recent financial woes over the last year at the two opera companies he directs, Washington National Opera and Los Angeles Opera. But when that many print journalists (including Anthony Tommasini who side-swiped the topic in his recent review of Domingo in Simon Boccanegra) all begin to write from the same apparent set of talking points, I become a little wary of the developing party line.

Domingo may not be as successful in any of his secondary careers as he is in his incarnation as an operatic tenor, but make no mistake; he is a force to be reckoned with and has offered much to all the companies and individuals he's worked with. He is easily the most famous living name in opera and would have few challengers for the title in the broader field of classical music. His appearance fills opera seats and get projects off the ground that no one else would dream of. Even if things don’t always work out perfectly, he has a way of making things happen that very few others do in the opera world. And despite some peoples' concerns about his commitments, there seems to continue to be a line around the block for any crumbs he's willing to drop. If you don’t believe me, just look at the brochure for the upcoming, and largely disappointing, San Francisco Opera 10/11 season. Aside from the new Ring cycle, there's Aida and Butterfly until your nauseous, and yet the big selling point to grace the cover is the return of Domingo to the War Memorial Opera house after some 15 years now as Cyrano de Bergerac. Apparently when you’re ready to ask people for a big cash outlay, SFO still thinks Domingo’s got the power. Whatever anyone says about his management in Los Angeles, the fact remains that he has played a huge role in the very existence of one of the country’s largest and simultaneously youngest companies. This rise so far so fast is no accident despite the county underwriting a deserved and appropriate loan.

Meanwhile, the musical career rolls on and Domingo's two appearances at the Metropolitan Opera are tantalizing in different ways. Perhaps the higher profile, and more successful, of the two is his vocal performance as Simon Boccanegra. Domingo has always had a darker tone to his voice, so it wasn’t completely outrageous when he announced plans to take on this major baritone role a few years back. What surprises me is how successful he is at it. Granted he is not attempting to sound like a baritone in any way. His Boccanegra is clearly operating in a higher register. But it works beautifully. His acting and general stage instincts are so strong that he easily overcomes what is lost in the change in sound. (Trust me if you can believe Elina Garanca as Carmen, this is a no-brainer.) In fact, he’s probably as convincing as virtually any baritone I’ve seen sing the role. Boccanegra’s death scene in Act III was superbly done. The rest of the cast including Adrianne Pieczonka as Amelia and Marcello Giordani as Gabriele are quite good as well. The Giancarlo del Monaco production is still a dud with one dreadful static set after the next and cries out for something more visually engaging at every turn. But as has proven true in the past, this may make the upcoming HD broadcast of the opera in movie theaters on February 6th the ideal way to experience the show when camera angles are likely to inject some much needed excitement into the theatrical part of the proceedings. The best part of the evening, though, was the hero's welcome in a final curtain call for Domingo with longtime friend—and the other major force behind that evening's success—conductor James Levine.

José Cura as Stiffelio
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2010

Domingo’s conducting in Stiffelio is not quite as heroic. He has also won a perhaps undeserved reputation as a conductor who's overly indulgent to vocalists at the expense of pacing and drama. He was famously booed after a performance of La Boheme he led a few years back at the Met Opera. But his guidance has been better received in this early Verdi work, though, admittedly, the biggest excitement for me came from the many surprises in the cast onstage. José Cura played the title role with understated grief and was certainly more than reasonable. Around him were a number of younger singers that appear to be on their way to much bigger parts and increasingly enthusiastic receptions. This was one of three performances from Julianna DiGiacomo as Lina who is sharing the role with Sondra Radvanovsky. DiGiacomo was wonderful with a solid, strong, and bright tone. She gained admirers quickly over the course of the evening and, if anyone was regretting not seeing Radvanovsky, you wouldn't have known it from the ovation she got at the end. I feel certain we haven't heard the last of her lovely voice, and for that I am grateful.

Lina’s father, Stankar, was sung by baritone Andrzej Dobber who gave a riveting account of “Lina pensai che un angelo” in Act III. I’ve seen Dobber sing Germont here in L.A. and was rather indifferent about the performance, but here he was heart-breakingly good. Also on stage was Michael Fabiano, the young tenor who appears in The Audition, Susan Froemke's recent documentary about the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions finalists. His Rafaelle was appropriately rash and impetuous among a field of the more reserved and shamed cast of characters. Although Domingo may not have given the show the thrust it deserves, he did marshal a performance worth remembering from the cast. And, while the show isn’t getting the HD treatment, it will be featured on the Saturday radio broadcast on January 30 and comes recommended as well.



Thank you for this. I am in NZ and look forward to the Met film. Barbara
Nicely said Brian. I too am growing weary of reading about Domingo supposedly spreading himself so thin and the implications that he is somehow doing a disservice to LAO and WNO, two companies that would probably not even be worth mentioning if he weren't at the helm.
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