But Covent Garden gala celebration is a curate’s egg
Plácido Domingo has been enthralling audiences at Covent Garden for 40 years and it was natural that the Royal Opera House would want to celebrate such a milestone. Last night’s gala allowed this much-loved artist to give us a taste of three of his Verdian title roles – one of his most famous tenor roles, Otello, followed by the two baritone parts he has recently added to his repertoire, Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra.
The evening consisted of the three closing acts, so it was a night for dying. Otello kills Desdemona and then himself. Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda is stabbed and packed into a sack (before managing her long tearful farewell when daddy discovers how the assassin he has overpaid has duped him). And Boccanegra succumbs to a slow poison and collapses, dead, his murderer having been led away to face his own execution.
Domingo dies very well. When he died in a concert staging of Boccanegra at the Proms last year he was so convincing that audience and cast feared something was amiss! But it’s rather tricky to make an evening comprised of death scene climaxes work. They are just that, climaxes, and I think you need the preceeding build-ups to give them the real impact. Each is draining of the audience as well as of the singers.
The running order had, in any event, been changed at the last minute. When the night’s programme was printed the plan had been to start with Rigoletto and then give us the closing acts of Boccanegra and Otello. In the event, Otello was taken first: Since his debut in 1971, Domingo has performed 25 tenor roles with the Royal Opera, his first Otello coming as long ago as 1980. The final act doesn’t even test Otello’s top notes, but you could still see why the tenor role was got out of the way first, Domingo sounding much more in his comfort zone as the evening progressed into his lower register. This wasn’t good news for his Desdemona; thrown into her Willow Song and Ave Maria without being fully warmed up, the accuracy of Marina Poplavskaya’s pitching was sorely tested. (By the time she returned as Amelia Grimaldi the issue had been resolved.) To be fair, Domingo’s Otello still sounds good and his is a wonderful stage presence. He gets right inside each of his characters.
For me, however, his Rigoletto – his debut in the role here and his second baritone lead after Boccanegra – was more successful. His manner, his bearing, his every gesture, reeked of the embittered deformed jester, labouring under Monterone’s curse. The quartet with Ailyn Pérez (Gilda), Francesco Meli (the Duke) and Justina Gringyte (a most engaging Maddalena) was mesmerising, though Meli’s top notes made me cringe.
And then the dying Doge. Simon’s confrontation, then reconciliation, with Paata Burchuladze’s Fiesco, provided a fitting climax. And the house went wild. No one wanted to let Domingo go and finally his facial muscles relaxed and as the floral tributes rained down his face was bathed in smiles.
I don’t know how much longer we will be privileged to see Domingo at Covent Garden, but I have wonderful memories of these 40 years: his Cavaradossi, of course, his fabulous Hoffmann. And not least a New Year’s Eve gala performance of Die Fledermaus in 1983, with Kiri Te Kanawa as Rosalinde and lots of special guests during the ball. He didn’t sing, though. This was Domingo the conductor! Thanks for everything.
Antony Craig started going to Covent Garden in 1962 and has probably been to more than 1000 performances at the Royal Opera House alone. He also finds time to sing in two choirs and is Production Editor of Gramophone.