18 March 2009

Prodigio Domingo

The Metropolitan Opera on Sunday night threw a little party to mark two anniversaries: the company is 125 years old, and for the past 40 of those years, Plácido Domingo has been on its roster. He is now 68 years old, long past retirement age for most tenors, and yet he is busier than ever: continuing to sing and to conduct around the world while also directing two major opera companies in the U.S. and a vocal competition. Even other superstars (such as the conductors Valery Gergiev and James Levine) can’t match his pace; most don’t even try.

He’s more than a phenomenon, he is history in the making, and we’re witnessing it. Centuries from now, people will still be talking about Plácido Domingo. It’s strange to think that people I know have worked with him, eaten dinner with him, gone for a walk with him: he’s flesh and blood, just a guy, a strikingly dull interview, and yet he’s one of the most remarkable artists — ever.

With Teresa Stratas in Franco Zeffirelli’s film of La Traviata.

I’ve heard Domingo sing many times at the Met, and I’ve heard him conduct a few times, too. My early encounters with his baton, in standard-rep operas, didn’t impress me much: he didn’t let the music breathe, though he was considerate of the singers: he didn’t put a personal stamp on the music, as he would have done with any work he sang. He was no Karajan. Conducting seemed then like a vanity project for him, and an endeavor in which opera houses indulged him primarily because they hoped to sign him to sing again (or because he was the boss).

I was wrong to underestimate his drive, and the last time I heard him conduct (in Paris, at the world premiere of Howard Shore’s opera, The Fly, in 2008), it was clear to me that Domingo had been studying and working hard to improve himself. I don’t think anyone could have conducted the piece better — and that’s a compliment. Howard Shore’s music got a fair hearing — and that’s an achievement.

Yet I don’t expect that it’s as a conductor that Domingo will be remembered. Over his long career, he’s sung something on the order of 135 roles, and he’s about to add Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra to that tally. That’s a baritone part: Domingo was trained to sing in that Fach, and the darker colors of his voice carried over into his singing when he became a tenor, lending him a poetic melancholy in parts such as Don Carlo and Otello.

I heard him sing a bit of the latter role at another gala, when the Met celebrated his sixtieth birthday. Everyone marveled that a man his age could still muster the burnished golden tones, the passion and the sorrow of the final act of Verdi’s tragedy. We all wondered how much longer he’d be able to keep going, and shortly thereafter, he retired the complete role from his repertoire. But on Sunday night, he sang the final scene again. I wish to hell I’d been there.

Baseball metaphors get overused in opera (yes, most American opera buffs are baseball fans), but Domingo invites them. He’s an old slugger who still hits ’em out of the park, and he leaves the rookies eating his dust.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I still remember answering the phone at Triumph, Columbia Pictures' first art house division, and hearing, "It is Placido" on the line. I was interning for the head of publicity and the movie version of CARMEN, with Domingo and Julia Migenes Johnson, was coming out; Placido kept calling my boss, Marcie Bloom, to arrange things. It was a thrill to get him on the line every time.