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At 109 roles, Placido Domingo’s career spans more of the tenor repertoire (not to mention a few baritone parts) than any other singer’s. His onstage appearances have provided us with quite a fashion show: He’s worn chaps and a 10-gallon hat, a clown suit, animal skins, a tunic and sandals, long white whiskers, blackface and a ‘Fro, and—most memorably—feathers. Such get-ups are the price of singing opera (and, for us, the price of loving opera enough to willingly suspend some disbelief). Where this most versatile of tenors meets his trickiest challenge is in roles like Don Rodrigue in Jules Massenet’s Le Cid, which calls for Domingo to make the ultimate transformation—into a young man.
Any tenor whose pipes have lasted as long as Domingo’s has found himself in this situation. Leading tenor roles tend to be young guys. But that didn’t stop Alfredo Kraus from playing Romeo in his 60s, or Carlo Bergonzi from singing the Duke of Mantua when he looked more like somebody’s roly-poly old uncle from Palermo. And Jan Peerce was still belting out Puccini’s most passionate arias at 90. Geriatric teenage lovers are as much a part of the operatic gestalt as comically runty villains and consumptive 400-pound heroines.
So here’s Domingo in Washington Opera’s new production of Le Cid, playing Rodrigue, a role that would have made a handsome vehicle for tenor sensation du jour Jose Cura. Instead, Cura will be returning to WashOp at the end of this season as Otello, a role that the more age-appropriate Domingo currently owns on stages across the world. That Cura—barely out of short pants, careerwise—will be tackling the interpretive plum of the Verdi canon, while Domingo denies us the thoughtfully matured assumption of a role he’ll soon be retiring, is too frustrating to contemplate.
But it’s hard to fault the guy when his Rodrigue is such a fine thing. No matter that every 10 minutes or so someone onstage mentions how young Rodrigue is. No matter that Domingo has made no attempt to darken his graying mane. To encounter this great tenor in the role is to believe he is every inch the 11th-century Spanish knight who conquered the Moorish invaders and won the heart of his true love, Chimene. It isn’t Domingo’s gracefully aging Latin looks that sell the performance, nor his ability to look engaged in the moment even when, as in this production, his dramatic imagination is not fully exploited. What compels about Domingo’s Rodrigue—about any of the characters he has recently essayed—is the unalloyed beauty and power of his voice. It’s as intimately ardent and as heroically rallying an instrument as any of this century’s great voices, and easily the most intelligently used. What will we do for the Real Thing when Domingo calls it quits?
If Le Cid were only the latest questionable campaign for WashOp’s generalissimo, it would be of very limited value. But this is an opera well worth reviving. In style and emotional temperature, Le Cid is leagues away from the sugarcoated Sturm und Drang of Manon and Werther. The martial swagger and poignant wind writing in the orchestration make this 1885 Parisian grand opera a closer relative to Berlioz’s Les Troyens or Verdi’s Don Carlos. It’s a work full of passion and incident, of spectacle and pulse-racing confrontations—nothing too deep, mind you, but a hell of a good time. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume understands this piece and does superb work in the pit. Surging and propulsive and as full of precipitous thrills as the drama onstage, his reading of the score is the linchpin of WashOp’s production.
The set design, costume design, and staging of the piece (all shared with Seville’s Teatro de la Maestranza) are the work of one man, director Hugo de Ana, and they rise majestically over the musical landscape Villaume lays out. This is one of those backward-looking productions in which emotional strife is indicated by hand-wringing, lurching, and sudden dramatic turns toward the audience, but that style is so enthusiastically pursued here it’s hard to resist. (Let’s face it, traditional opera acting is the closest equivalent the Western world has to Kabuki, and when singers throw themselves into it with such abandon, it carries a bizarre fascination.) De Ana supports and counterpoints the soloists’ movements with swirls of courtiers, ranks of armored horses and troops—the opening slo-mo battle tableau is a knockout—and supers striking archetypal poses of sorrow and rage. The stage is rarely still, thank God.
But people—costumed within an inch of their lives by de Ana, who has a marvelous eye for color and the way fabric catches the light—are only one element in this deliriously lavish production. A stage-filling staircase that seems to go on for a city block, a three-story cross studded with jewels the size of small children, proscenium-high iron gates that open and close with massive grandeur: This is not a cost-conscious staging. And, as with the Kabuki acting thing, if you play the opulence card all the way, you can make an audience giddy with excitement. I can’t remember any production that’s used the Opera House stage so completely and conveyed such a sense of mass and scale. Joan Sullivan-Genthe’s lighting is unusually successful, even by her heady standards, in suggesting daylight infiltrating dark palaces and flooding dusty cathedrals through rows of clerestory windows. Opera does gargantuan well, but it rarely does it this well.
The approach fits the piece, which taps into the big, showy side of Pierre Corneille’s play Le Cid, which Massenet’s opera is based on. There was a production of the play from the
Avignon Festival, directed by Declan Donnelan, that played the Brooklyn Academy of Music last season and was a revelatory paring away of anything oversized. It used a handful of actors and a bare stage to play out the feud between Rodrigue’s and Chimene’s fathers, Rodrigue’s killing of Chimene’s father in a duel, Chimene’s titanic struggle between romantic love and family honor, and the borderline-comic denouement that brings the young knight and his lady together. It was spare, personal, sublime theater. But how lost that approach would have been on this opera, which seems as fixated on court processions, troop deployment, and—oh yes—a visitation by St. James, as it is on the travails of its main characters. De Ana understands this focus and makes the macrocosmic seem as vital, as subject to la forza del destino, as the personal stuff.
The singers surrounding Domingo and filling out all the exquisite brocades and chain mail are a strong group. In a cast heavy on low male voices, Kimm Julian is a mellifluous King of Spain and William Parcher a firm-toned Gormas. Best of all is Hao Jiang Tian, who’s credible as Don Diegue, Rodrigue’s crestfallen father. (In real life, Domingo is probably old enough to be Tian’s dad.) Even Tian’s huffy, loosened vibrato can’t mask a powerful sepulchral bass that’s used with impact and dramatic smarts all evening. Angela Turner Wilson sings the Infanta in a bright, fluttering lyric soprano that boasts some glinting high notes. Chimene suits Elisabete Matos better than her role last spring in Sly. She conveys both more nuance and more Wagnerian reserves of power than she had opportunity to in that production and sounds very much at home with French style and language. Although her upper range takes on a steely and anonymous tone, hers is an attractive enough voice overall, and she acts convincingly with it.
Le Cid, like any Domingo show, is one of those impossible tickets to obtain. But if you can connive your way in, you’ll hear the greatest tenor of the second half of this century and see what opera looked like during the first half. CP