City Paper is not for tourists
Plácido Domingo is leaving us. Looking back, it’s remarkable that he stuck around this long. For much of his 15 years atop the Washington National Opera, he’s been occupied with other pursuits. Now 70, Domingo has long hinted that retirement was imminent—only to run off and star in some new production far from D.C. The two-timing extended to the business side, too: Since 2003, Domingo has also directed the Los Angeles Opera.
In the end, D.C. got dumped for the sexier mistress. Last fall, Domingo announced he would be renewing his contract in L.A., but this would be his last season in Washington.
This should come as little surprise. The Los Angeles Opera has been Domingo’s baby since he helped oversee its 1986 founding. The District was always a bit too small for a guy like Domingo, who seems to prefer Hollywood A-listers to Beltway bureaucrats.
And so for its last two productions of the season, WNO is squeezing as much out of Domingo as it can. He stars in Iphigénie en Tauride, and on alternating nights he conducts the orchestra for Don Pasquale. Iphigénie, though, is close to sold out. So unless you bought tickets already, your best chance to see him is the latter—where the most you’ll see is the back of the great man’s head bobbing over the orchestra pit.
Don Pasquale, in fact, is an odd choice to close out the Domingo era: Donizetti’s opéra bouffe is not particularly extravagant and definitely not highbrow. The comedic substance can be summed up in the words of Dave Chappelle: “Women be shoppin’!” Though the opera is originally set in the mid-1700s, director Leon Major turned it back a century to coincide with Molière’s time, giving the whole thing a French baroque theater motif; thus, a lot of the action on stage centers on characters getting in and out of those ridiculous period outfits.
Bass-baritone James Morris plays the story’s namesake, a grouchy old miser who is preoccupied with making sure his nephew Ernesto marries well—which is to say, rich. Ernesto (played alternating dates by tenors Antonio Gandia and Alexey Kudrya) has no such plans—he has fallen for struggling stage actress Norina (sopranos Ekaterina Siurina and Julia Novikova). But upon learning this, Don Pasquale threatens to disinherit his nephew and take a wife himself. Pasquale’s sympathetic and meddlesome doctor Malatesta (Dwayne Croft) decides to take matters into his own hands and hatches a plot: He enlists Norina to play his sister, an innocent ex-nun “fresh out of the convent” who duly becomes the woman of Pasquale’s dreams, charms him to the altar, and then turns the tables on him by haranguing him and spending all of his money. Eventually all is revealed and, their sham marriage annulled, Norina is free to marry Ernesto. This somehow teaches Pasquale the true meaning of love, or something.
A lot of Don Pasquale’s humor derives from the notion of a woman acting uppity (albeit toward a deserving jerk) and her transformation from chaste nun to emasculating she-devil—a Taming of the Shrew in reverse. The jokes are mildly amusing, and they would be even better if you could actually hear them being sung, which a lot of times, you can’t. At more dramatic moments, WNO’s orchestra, led by Domingo, overpowers all but the loudest singers. As Ernesto and Norina, Gandia and Siurina more than hold their own with their powerful intonation. But the reedy-voiced Croft just keeps his head above water, and Morris, as Pasquale, gets lost under the trombones. When he can be heard, he sometimes falls out of time and gets ahead of himself, as in Act 3’s duet with Ernesto. This wouldn’t be bad for a bit character, but it is a problem when your opera is called Don Pasquale.
Allen Moyer’s set design gives Don Pasquale’s mansion a nicely faded feel, with everything looking slightly dusty, like old money that sat around too long and went stale. The servants, wearing yellow costumes that make them look like beekeepers, provide some comic relief towards the end that isn’t very comic or relieving. The third act, indeed, is just waiting for Pasquale’s eventual comeuppance, and it seems to go on forever. By the time everyone assembles for the big climax, you’ve been through two intermissions and you’re strategizing how to beat the rush to the bathroom and still make it to the shuttle bus.
This won’t be the last we see of Domingo. WNO snagged him to conduct for its first production of next season, Tosca, which opens at the Kennedy Center Sept. 10. AARP membership aside, he’s also slated to sing in various productions worldwide, and will probably continue to do so until his voice gives out. So if L.A. is counting on a quiet, stay-at-home dad, they’re in for many a lonely night. But they probably know that already. Some men just aren’t the kind to be tied down.