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The Lion in Autumn

In 2016, PLÁCIDO DOMINGO will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his first Met appearance. He talks about his move into baritone repertoire—and the reaction of the critics. by Fred Cohn. 

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Domingo as Simon Boccanegra, a role he will sing again at the Met in April 2016
© Beth Bergman
“I don’t pretend to be a baritone, but I know that I am creating the character.”
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© Pedro Walter / Sony Classical, a division of Sony Music Entertainment
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As Gianni Schicchi at LA Opera, 2015
© Craig T. Mathew

It is a tribute to Plácido Domingo’s tenacity that, at age seventy-four and well past his primo tenore days, he remains one of the opera world’s top attractions. In my forty years of operagoing, I have witnessed more great performances from Domingo than from any other singer. My first, thrilling live encounter was a 1977 Met Forza; the repeated A-flats in “O tu che in seno agli angeli” radiated through the auditorium like sunbursts. 

In the decades that followed, I caught him in an astonishing variety of roles—almost all of the great Verdi and Puccini tenor heroes, Lohengrin, Saint-Saëns’s Samson, Berlioz’s Énée, Tchaikovsky’s Gherman. As sung by Domingo, Loris’s “Amor ti vieta,” from Giordano’s Fedora, became a galvanic lyrical outpouring, in a moment transforming an entertaining, if creaky, curiosity into the very stuff of lyric theater. Not all of his assumptions were equally successful: Calàf, for one, calls for a voice with a more metalic gleam than Domingo could summon. But his artistry was unquestionable every time, his work consistently marked not just by the velvety beauty of his voice but by his stunning musicality and commitment to the dramatic moment. 

When he eventually undertook Siegmund and Parsifal, Domingo proved that he could easily command a heldentenor’s vocal heft. But even here, the distinguishing element of his portrayals was the sheer lyricism of his singing: as Siegmund, he would make the walls of the Met auditorium ring with his cries of “Wälse”; then, minutes later, in “Winterstürme,” he would deploy the same magnificent legato he had brought in years past to Cavaradossi’s “E lucevan le stelle” or Alfredo’s “De’ miei bollenti spiriti,” the phrases lapping in sequence, like the gentle waves of an ocean inlet. 

We met this past spring for a two-hour conversation in the opera news office—an occasion for the tenor to reflect on a legacy of more than half a century. He is especially keen to acknowledge a trio of fiftieth-anniversary milestones in the coming year, all of them involving New York. (The city, for all his globetrotting, has long served as home base, and Domingo has sung with the Met 673 times, far more than with any other company.) In 1966, he starred in the U.S. premiere of Alberto Ginastera’s Don Rodrigo, in a performance that marked New York City Opera’s arrival at its new home in Lincoln Center’s State Theater. That same year, he made his Carnegie Hall debut, as Percy in an American Opera Society concert performance of Anna Bolena. Most important, he took on both Turiddu and Canio in a Lewisohn Stadium concert version of Cav/Pag—his first appearance with the Metropolitan Opera, two years before his 1968 “official” debut. “I didn’t have any clue then that I would still be singing fifty years later,” he says.

Domingo, an amazingly industrious man, has famously buttressed his singing with many other enterprises: he is a conductor (more than 150 appearances on the Met podium, starting in 1984) and an administrator (artistic director of Los Angeles Opera since 2003). Through his Operalia competition and his young-artist programs in Los Angeles, Valencia and Washington, D.C., he has fostered the careers of scores of rising performers. 

A ll of this helps explain why Domingo is indisputably the most beloved person in the world of opera. This past spring, I saw him twice at the Met—in the baritone role of Don Carlo in Ernani and as conductor of Aida—and on both occasions he received stupendous ovations: the audience wasn’t simply responding to a great performer but to a man whose stature lies somewhere between that of a king and a saint. 

Still, at the time of our interview, he is under attack. Just weeks before this meeting, Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times’s chief classical-music critic, abandoned his usually anodyne manner and used his Ernani review as a broadside, explicitly calling for the star to retire. Domingo expresses little more than minor annoyance at this: even if he hasn’t, after fifty years in the public eye, developed too thick a skin to be wounded by a critical salvo, he has certainly become too press-savvy to let a reporter see the scar. “The critic has the pen and the power to do it, so they can write however they feel,” he says. “It doesn’t matter.”

But Tommasini’s harsh assessment did not come out of left field. Domingo’s late-career strategy of moving into Verdi baritone territory, starting with a 2007 Simon Boccanegra in Berlin, has engendered all manner of critical dissatisfaction. “It would be something of an exaggeration to claim that he suddenly sounds like an authentic Verdi baritone, or that he has managed to illuminate the protagonist’s complex character,” Martin Bernheimer wrote in the Financial Times about Domingo’s 2010 Met Boccanegra. “Even the biggest over-achievers can’t achieve everything.” 

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As Germont to Diana Damrau’s Violetta at the Met, 2013
© Johan Elbers
 

T o be sure, Domingo’s baritone assumptions provide the pleasure of coming in contact with that great voice—still recognizably itself, even if its texture has gotten rougher and the breath support less secure. He can unquestionably encompass the range of the roles, with low notes to spare. But, as Bernheimer indicated, the voice’s structure isn’t that of a baritone, a discrepancy most notable at the climactic moments of phrases, which lack the vocal tension—and excitement—that a true baritone creates when he climbs to the top of his range. As sung by Domingo, these roles sometimes sound, weirdly, like tenor parts transposed downward. 

Domingo is too intelligent a man—and too thoroughly an authority on the human voice—not to acknowledge the problem. He explains that he sings these roles not as a baritone but with his own tenor technique. “I do darken the voice, and I cover it [lower],” he says. “The tenor has to cover at the F or F-sharp, the baritone at C or C-sharp, and I feel every day more comfortable with that. The only thing—when I have a cold, it’s difficult to color, because the voice tries to defend itself by going back to its nature.

“I love the sound of a real baritone—of Bastianini and MacNeil and Merrill,” he continues. “I don’t pretend to be a baritone, but I know that I am creating the character and the feeling of the part. And I know the voice is still healthy. I know some of the things I have done have been better than others—not every opera is the same. But the percentage is a good one, and the public comes, and the public likes it.”

Domingo’s personal motto, “If I rest, I rust,” offers a partial explanation of his fortitude. “Of course I need to rest,” he tells me. “But it’s about the weight you carry with your shoulders—and I always say I have big shoulders.”

He inherited his attitude toward work from his parents, singers who founded a zarzuela and operetta troupe that toured the length of Mexico, season after season. “I saw them working so intensely, doing two zarzuelas, then rehearsing the two works they were doing the next day—and on Sunday, three!” he says. “They had a nice life, but it was not to get rich. They always had to worry about the economic side. They would count the money from the tickets they were selling that day in order to pay the company. It was very, very tough.

“They were singing in Guadalajara, which is very Catholic, the day Pius XII died [in 1958],” Domingo remembers. “The public wouldn’t go anywhere. I could see my father looking through the hole in the curtain, and there was hardly anybody out there. So they had to cancel. It was too painful.”

Despite the hardships, the stage exerted a powerful pull on the young Domingo. “When I was nine or ten, they would say to me, ‘You have to go home and go to school tomorrow,’ but I would beg to stay,” he says. “I think the theater was in my veins already.” He helped in any way he could—playing bit parts, putting up music stands. When his voice changed, he started taking singing roles. He also got his first experience as a conductor—cueing the chorus from backstage and eventually taking the podium, at one point leading a performance of excerpts from The Merry Widow with his mother, Pepita Embil, as Hanna Glawari.

Just as his parents provided him with a model for his own later efforts as an impresario, his father may have taught him—by negative example—something about vocal longevity. Plácido, Sr., was a high baritone (“the baritone in zarzuela is higher than in the opera,” Domingo explains) who ruined his voice trying to sing through a cold; by the time his son became involved with the troupe, the elder Domingo worked only as an actor and a director. “I have some recordings,” his son says, “and I’ve always believed his voice was more beautiful than mine.”

Domingo has endured his own vocal difficulties. The first incident came early, in 1968, when he threw out his voice preparing for his first Lohengrin, in Hamburg, and subsequently took a short break from performing in order to be in top shape for his Met house debut (opposite Renata Tebaldi in Adriana Lecouvreur). More troubling was the crisis he suffered in 2005 during the run of Robert Wilson’s L.A. Opera production of Parsifal. The problem, he feels, stemmed from the production itself: the physical task of sustaining the director’s signature stasis took its toll on the voice. “He had this idea of no motion but all expression,” Domingo says. “I have done many performances of Parsifal where I’m down on the floor with Kundry, moving, rolling around. But now I had something muscular, where I was not able to sing.”

The situation forced him to contemplate the possibility of an abrupt end to his life on the stage. “For about four months, I cannot find myself,” he says. “I thought, ‘Well, if it stays like this, it’s sad, but I’ve sung already a full career.’ Then I sang a concert in New Orleans, after the hurricane, and everything came back. And can you imagine—I’ve been singing for ten more years!”

From the Archives  FROM
THE
ARCHIVES
 
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Domingo has stolen the show for a record 16 cover stories.
See them all in “Seasons of the Champion,” (F. Paul Driscoll, March 2009)
 

W hen I mention one of the possible attractions of retirement—having the time to relax and contemplate—it is as if I’m speaking a language Domingo doesn’t understand. The only complaint he can offer about his hectic schedule is that sometimes his professional obligations block other activities, as in May of 2014, when a Sunday matinée of Thaïs in Los Angeles kept him from getting to Portugal on a Saturday night to see his favorite soccer team, Real Madrid, win the championship. “If [the performance] was Sunday evening,” he says, “maybe I could have done it, with the private plane of a friend.”

Still, he knows that at some point it will no longer make sense to continue his singing career. “I don’t know when that might be,” he says. “Will I be singing in six months? I do know I have contracts for three more years, because—okay, if you don’t sing, you don’t sing. Logically, I’m not going to sing when I can’t.”

So he is relying on his body and his voice to let him know when that time has come? “Exactly,” he says. “And logically, the public and the theaters. But I will be the first to say, ‘That’s it.’ I know that the day I will have to give up singing will be sad. But by God, I have made a career.” spacer 

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