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Placido Domingo does baritone at the Met

January 19, 2010 |  2:12 pm

PD Reporting from New York

For opera fans used to seeing and hearing Plácido Domingo, his entrance Monday night at the Metropolitan Opera House was almost unrecognizable. The star tenor walked on stage wearing a dark wig and a decidedly unregal costume, singing low, E-naturals with a deep, baritonal resonance. It clearly took the Met audience a moment to realize that it was indeed him, since a Domingo entrance in a non-Wagner opera at the Met usually prompts applause — on this occasion there was no clapping until the first curtain call.

This was Domingo’s first U.S. performance as a baritone in a full opera, singing the title role in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra." (For years he performed the tenor part of Gabrielle but debuted as Simon only last October in Berlin.) The opening night was a sold-out, standing-room only event, packed with opera-goers curious to see and hear how low Domingo could go.  (Southern Californians can see the Feb. 6 performance on movie screens as part of The Met: Live in HD series.) 

For the record: Domingo sang all the low notes — some with greater ease than others — yet as the opera unfolded, it was his signature, burnished tenor sound that rang out with the greatest force  For opera purists used to deep, resounding Boccanegras on CD (such as Tito Gobbi or Lawrence Tibbett) this decidedly lighter sounding Doge might be hard to reconcile.  At times the orchestra drowned out Domingo and he often made Verdi's flowing vocal lines sound more like recitatif; but for those who focus on the dramatic side of opera, there is no question that Domingo’s Boccanegra was a success—a performance that called to mind his Otellos of years past.

Like that famed tenor part, Boccanegra is an unlikely ruler, an outsider who loses his lover and meets a tragic end. (Also, it was written by the same composer and librettist just before they would embark on “Otello.”)  In many ways, Domingo’s determined effort to play Boccanegra feels like his way of making lightning strike twice, recapturing the spirit of his Moor of Venice albeit with a score his voice can still accommodate at this stage of his career.

PD400 Verdi’s heavily revised opera may not be as coherent or refined as “Otello,” but it features a sophisticated score and powerful bursts of drama. The opening night performance was slow to get going (the low notes of the once powerful bass-baritone James Morris in the key role of Fiesco were even fainter than the star tenor’s), but once Domingo’s plebeian corsair gained the power of 14th century Genoa and donned the Doge’s flowing robes, the opera surged. The ear stopped trying to classify Domingo’s voice and began simply hearing the rich emotion in Verdi’s music.

Like his recent turn in Handel’s “Tamerlano” at L.A. Opera (where he didn’t sound like a typical baroque tenor), Domingo in these late years performs in a sound all his own. Call it “baritenor,” call it “barely tenor,” call it “a barrel of croaking toads,” if you want — it is a sound that works for the regal characters he’s carefully chosen to play. The generally conservative Met audience (which included more than 40 L.A. Opera Board members and patrons in the crowd of almost 4,000 people) roared with approval for Domingo after the curtain fell.

Just lately Domingo has been hit with negative press criticizing the superstar for spreading himself too thin as singer, conductor and chief administrator for two opera companies: Los Angeles Opera and Washington Opera. L.A. Opera, as reported first by Culture Monster, needed a $14 million emergency loan from the county last month, and last week—while Domingo was in Met rehearsals—Washington Opera revealed that its budget for next year was trimmed by $5 million and that its season was cut to five operas.

Even if his legacy as an artistic director may be in flux at the moment (the announcement of the Los Angeles Opera season comes at the end of this month — no doubt it will be watched closely), Domingo’s fame (and influence in the opera world) is first and foremost as a singer.  As he himself said frankly in an interview for the New York Times last week: “I cannot betray the singer,” he said. “I won’t sing one day more than I should, but also I won’t sing one day less than I can.”

The luster that this long and storied career has brought to his two American opera companies is significant, but the question being asked by his critics is: Has it come with too great a price?  L.A.’s "Ring" cycle this summer will be a bellwether, but whatever the off-stage problems, it’s clear there is still an audience for Domingo’s onstage.

A telling moment came during the curtain call when Domingo shared a bow with James Levine, in many ways his counterpart at the Met, who also has been criticized by some as spreading himself too thin with multiple positions at major musical organizations.  The two received a particularly rousing hand as they hugged — with some of the stage blood from Domingo’s face smearing on Levine’s forehead.  The two legends began their careers at the Met at roughly the same time; now approaching their 70s, even bloodied and beleaguered, they are showing no signs of slowing down.

-- James C. Taylor

Photo: Plácido Domingo in "Simon Boccanegra." Credit: Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera.

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