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Vintage Domingo

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther) Permanent link
Watching Plácido Domingo as Oreste on the recent opening night of Iphigénie en Tauride at the Met (Feb. 12), I could not help wondering whether the opera world will ever again have a superstar so utterly dedicated to serving the music at hand as it has in its current “grand old man.”

In late-career, Domingo has wisely relinquished most of the familiar roles with which he was closely associated in his prime and sought out lesser known areas of the repertoire that don’t tax his vocal resources but do give him scope to display his undiminished gifts for shaping expressive phrases, coloring his sound and pouring himself into a role with unstinting passion and intensity. 
Oreste is by no means a show-off role, musically or dramatically: there are no prolonged high notes, no long, lyrical melodies to spin, and the character, mired in the agony of his unhappy destiny, has no moments to display the sort of crowd-pleasing romantic heroism that has been Domingo’s trademark. Even when the focus is on him, this is a character living so much inside himself that it would be working against the dramatic current for the performer to do anything flashy to grab the spotlight. Yet there is a depth to Domingo’s portrayal, an artistic honesty and integrity, a complete absorption in the Gluckian ethos and a willingness to be a true ensemble member — in some ways even a supporting player — that places his performance, for me, on the same pedestal as some of his greatest mid-career assumptions. To watch him, in the final pantomime, respond to Susan Graham’s Iphigénie as the conflicted princess alternately repulses, pummels and embraces him; to see how he flinches, waits, yearns, despairs and ultimately freezes, suspended in time at the instant of her yielding, before folding her in his arms with wondrous tenderness — all this without ever distracting from her performance — is to understand what a stage partner is meant to be.
I was struck, at the end of the very well received opening, by the somewhat reserved response to Domingo at the curtain call. One might expect an artist of his calibur and his long and illustrious history in the house to be greeted with the operatic equivalent of rock-star hysteria whenever he appears, but here, while he received warm applause, there was no outpouring of mass gratitude and reverence such as have greeted other iconic performers toward the end of their careers. One almost got the sense that Domingo’s very seriousness of approach somehow heads off such demonstrations. Or perhaps the reserve of the reformer Gluck tends to rub off on his fans. But I find myself hoping it was merely an aberration, as I, for one, would like to see this great master given his full due. spacer 


Personal Best

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Listening) Permanent link

It's been a season of great losses in the opera world, the most recent one being Margaret Price, who died of heart failure on January 28 at her home in Wales. She was only sixty-nine. Why does her relatively early passing make me so sad? Maybe it's because her career never quite seemed to reach the heights that many of us thought it should. I don't mean to suggest that Price was underrated, certainly not by anyone who ever heard her live — at least not by anybody I knew. But she never maintained a highly aggressive approach to her career, and her appearances in the U.S. were relatively rare. She always left us wanting more.

I was there for her Met debut in 1985, as Desdemona. The company was chastised for not having her sooner; after all, she had made her professional debut twenty-three years earlier, as Cherubino at Welsh National Opera. Belated or not, her Desdemona was widely discussed as one of the most important Met debuts in years — another being Jessye Norman in Les Troyens in 1983. Price gave a superb performance. The sound she poured out was ample yet with an exquisite fragility and femininity. She was all we could ask of a Desdemona, and even though she loomed large onstage physically as well as vocally, I don't remember anyone I knew saying a word about her size. Her degree of vocal artistry made it seem crass even to suggest that she was too hefty to be "convincing." 

She returned to the Met in 1989 as Elisabetta in Don Carlo. This is the performance of hers I will always carry with me. She was a study in torment as she sang "Tu che le vanità," her ravishing voice filling the house. In the years that followed, I remember thinking it was odd that this performance wasn't commented on more feverishly when people I knew were recalling great performances. Perhaps this was simply her own shyness and reticence coming through to the rest of us. Perhaps we perceived somehow that she didn't want us to demand too much of her: she just wanted us to listen and leave her alone. spacer 


That Old Puccini Magic

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther, Cinema, Listening, Soundtracks) Permanent link

The other night, I attended a performance of La Bohème at the Met in the iconic Franco Zeffirelli production. For one of my companions, it was the very first time; for me, it is a familiar ritual by now — I think I must have seen this show a dozen times at least. It's always interesting to watch how differently the Bohemians play the comic shenanigans in Act I, and what new bits of shtick come and go over the years, depending on the artists' personalities and the amount of rehearsal time accorded to the production in a given year. It's also fun to feel the thrill of the newbies in the audience when the curtain opens on those amazing sets, which still draw bursts of applause and sighs of wonderment every night. (One amusing side note: the recent multiple blizzards in New York seemed to have dampened appreciation for the beautiful Act III snow scene outside the tavern, which was greeted with silence last week for the first time in my experience, though Acts I and III elicited as many gasps as ever.)

Over the years I have discovered something about this opera: no matter the variations — even with the occasional subpar exponents in the leading roles, lackluster conducting or staging miscues — the final moments never fail to make their effect. I mean NEVER. Of course, the Zeffirelli touch helps, as does the generally superlative level of casting at the Met, but they are really icing on the cake. Even on a bad day, when my mind is elsewhere, those last pages of the score invariably move me to tears. 

This phenomenon is born out strikingly by a perfectly dreadful old movie called Mimi, based on Scènes de la Vie de Bohème. Its plot is only loosely connected to that of the opera, and despite a starry cast led by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as Rodolphe and Gertrude Lawrence in the title role, the characters here emerge as singularly self-centered, dippy and unsympathetic, so that by the time poor Mimi lies on the brink of death, one is ready to roll one's eyes and say, "Not a moment too soon" — until, somewhere in the background, rise the strains of that final scene from Puccini's score. For a brief second, I caught myself thinking cynically what an injustice is was to the composer to drag him into this mess of a film at the eleventh hour, but in the next moment, my face was streaming with tears. It didn't make the movie any better, but it certainly provided testimony to the extraordinary, enduring and instantaneous power of this masterly few measures of music. spacer 


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