Rebirth of Reason


Our Greatest Living Tenor: Placido Domingo
by James Kilbourne

Those of you who have read my previous articles on music know that I tend to make broad statements - such as the title of this article. Why? Can’t there be an honest difference of opinion about who the greatest living tenor is? Of course there can. The rest of you are simply wrong.

Seriously, a title like the above forces me to concentrate on a subject, come to my conclusion, and to defend the logic of my conclusion.

As most of you know, Placido Domingo is one of the “Three Tenors” (with Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras), who has dominated the world of opera and song for over thirty-five years. In the recorded history of tenors, the early twentieth century was owned by the great Enrico Caruso, with Beniamino Gigli a close second. Towering above the mid-twentieth century is Mario Lanza, with Jussi Bjoerling right behind him. The giant figure of Domingo strides over the last third of that century, with Luciano Pavarotti a few paces back.

A large, powerful, and very handsome man, Placido Domingo (whose name, translated from the Spanish, is “Peaceful Sunday”) always commands the center of attention and cuts a heroic figure on the opera stage. I have been lucky (and smart) enough to see more than a dozen of his live performances over the years, starting in the early 1970’s. Perhaps most memorable of those early performances was a “Turandot” in Newark, New Jersey, with Birgit Nilsson as Turandot and Licia Albanese as Liu. Seeing Domingo as Calaf, I was aware that this was a performer who was destined to be a major artist. He gave a strong performance - but when Ms. Nilsson opened her mouth, that was all you heard. I was in the third row center and went home with a very worthwhile headache from her lung power! Sadly, Ms. Albanese was well past her prime by the mid-seventies, and was cruelly booed by the unforgiving audience.

Domingo’s voice is large and very masculine, and he always exhibits unfailing intelligence and musicality in his performances. His acting is committed and intense. There is no tenor in history who has worked harder on his art than Placido Domingo. That early “Turandot” was amazing; his later ones are even better.

Born in the early 1940’s in Spain, he was raised in Mexico City by his parents, both of whom were singers. They owned a musical production company that staged performances of zarzuelas, a Spanish form of music that enjoyed great popularity in Spain and Latin America in the first half of the twentieth century. This music requires a high degree of virtuosity, and lies somewhere between the grand opera of Puccini, the operettas of Franz Lehar, and the lighter musical theater of the time. When he was still a boy, Domingo appeared in a small role in one of these zarzuelas, and the audience response was very enthusiastic. It remains so to this day. He has said that from that moment on, he knew what he wanted to do with his life.

Domingo has had to work hard to conquer the vocal challenges of the roles he has sung. His voice is as close to the heavier German heldentenor timber as a Mediterranean voice gets, and he has never been able to master the high C, the holy grail of tenor goals. But he has as good a high B as any tenor, and he has learned how best to take advantage of his natural gifts and to overcome the lack of agility that restricts many dramatic tenor voices.

In the 1970’s, almost everyone knowledgeable about opera - including me - would have told you that the giant of the upcoming era would be Pavarotti. His musicianship was flawless, and he sang with an ease that was astounding. I remember that one of the first times I saw Pavarotti was on a TV broadcast of “La Boheme”. During the intermission, the movie actor and passionate opera fan Tony Randall came in to interview him. The first thing Randall did was kiss him on the mouth and blurt out, “Thank you!” The voice was so easy and beautiful that we all felt that way about Pavarotti, so the only one who was startled by the kiss was Luciano.

In September of this year, Pavarotti, now in his late sixties, will make his farewell Los Angeles performance at the Hollywood Bowl, a few hundred yards from where I am typing this article. The front section tickets are $350 a seat, the middle section $250, and further back they sell for the bargain price of $150 (bring your own telescope). This has been a tight year for me financially, despite the millions I make here at SOLO, so I have decided I will pass on this opportunity. However, those of you who are prone to make a wager now and then probably should not put your money on my not being there. I love Luciano Pavarotti and, happily, I usually lose these financial responsibility battles with myself.

Although Pavarotti’s voice is an eternal miracle the man is, unfortunately, more mortal. Interpretively, his approach to singing stresses the voice as the center of the world, whereas I feel that the voice is the means to the drama. Although no one who sings as he does deserves anything less than great respect, I don’t become lost in the story when he sings. His repertoire is not nearly as challenging as one would wish it to be. Pavarotti hit his peak in the 1980’s and has been in a magnificent slow decline ever since. He found the group of operas and songs that he wanted to sing in his career and, as time went by, has been slow to do the work necessary to expand that body of work.

Domingo is now in his mid sixties. From his earliest years to the present, he has continued to improve both dramatically and vocally. If one compares his recording of “Nessun Dorma” in the seventies with his later recordings in the 1980’s - and beyond -  one quickly sees the improvement in the ease of singing and his dramatic abilities. Nothing frightens Domingo. He takes on every challenge and not only succeeds, but usually becomes the undisputed best.

The number one singer of Puccini over the last 30 years? It has to be Domingo, recording all of his operas except “Gianni Schicchi” and “Edgar.” (What a loss, although the final high C of Edgar might have killed him!)  He even recorded his early songs, under the title of “Domingo sings the Unknown Puccini”. Verdi? I have lost count of the number of recordings he has made of “Otello,” each one surpassing the previous one in understanding and intensity. He is arguably the greatest “Otello” ever, although I would give a year’s pay to hear Lanza do it. Yes, but no singer who masters these Italians can sing Wagner, right?  Wrong. The last twenty years have seen him become a leading interpreter of several Wagner operas. I saw him sing the first act of “Die Walkure” a few years ago. The great Melchior was no better. And next year, despite his age, he will star in a new production of “Parsifal” in Los Angeles.

Domingo has taken Mahler’s song cycle, “Das Lied von der Erde,” with complete success and has recorded much of the music of operetta as well. Why, he even released an album of pop songs in English with John Denver called “Perhaps Love,” which sold a million copies.

If Domingo had recorded only his Spanish music he would still be considered a prolific artist. He has countless albums of Spanish songs, from the classical to the most popular and has even written a few of his own. He has single-handedly brought back the greatest examples of zarzuela to the Los Angeles stage, bringing with him some very gifted Latin American artists previously unheard in America. He has recorded albums of tangos and mariachi music, and all the differing styles of Spanish music that have come to life over the last 100 years.

In his spare time (?), Domingo is the Artistic Director of the Washington National Opera and in that same capacity in Los Angeles has ended the eternal jokes about LA being void of culture. He has become an accomplished conductor, guest conducting with many of the great orchestras of the world.

As you might suspect, music stores are filled with his art. I will only mention a few highlights and will try to spread them out so that those interested can see the depth of his reach. And for those of you who can manage it, try to see this great singer in person before time conquers even his indomitable spirit. The experience will be rare memory. You will have seen the best. On cold winter evenings in the distant future, you can share it with your grandchildren.

Outstanding performances of Placido Domingo available on DVD:

From film:  Franco Zeffirelli directed him in “Otello” with Riciarelli and in “La Traviata” with the great Teresa Stratas. These are beautiful films, marred only by Zeffirelli’s insistence in making cuts to the original works - something no one should do to works that are so well-known.

He also made a very effective movie of “Carmen” with Julla Migenes, and a dramatic “Madama Butterfly” with Mirella Freni.

Turning to live stage performances, my favorite is the flawed but magisterial Zeffirelli-staged “Turandot” from the Metropolitan Opera, with Eva Marton as Turandot and a wonderful performance of Liu by Leoni Mitchell.

His “Tosca” with Hildegard Behrens suffers from her completely unconvincing performance of the love duet in the first act, but she comes alive thereafter. Domingo is magnificent as Mario Cavaradorsi.

For those of you who haven’t seen Puccini’s cowboy opera, “La Fanciulla del West” (“The Girl of the Golden West”), he has two versions on DVD from live performances; both of them will surprise you with their power (and, occasionally, their unintended humor. It takes a strong will not to laugh a little when you hear a string of Italian interspersed with “Dick Johnson di Sacramento” or “addio di California”).

On CD:  There are so many available CD’s that I will only say that if you are looking for a collection of arias by him, pick one where he appears to be a bit older. They will all be excellent, but he does get better and better.

Two CD’s recently recorded deserve special mention:  “Bajo El Cielo Espanol” (“Under the Spanish Sky”), a suite of songs including “Granada” by Agustin Lara; and Wagner “Love Duets” with Deborah Voigt.

And, finally, for those who haven’t seen it, get the DVD of “The Original Three Tenors," performed on July 7, 1990. It is by far the best of the series. Listen to “Non Puede Ser” by Domingo.

The greatest singer of the last 30 years? I rest my case!

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