Call it a week with four Sundays. This past week at the Metropolitan Opera, Placido Domingo (who’s last name means “Sunday” in Spanish) performed in four of the company’s seven performances—a trick the superstar (and the last of the “Three Tenors” still singing opera) will repeat next week as well. He’s singing in a revival of Simon Boccanegra and conducting the revival of Stiffelio, both operas by Verdi—and in an odd coincidence, both productions are directed by Giancarlo Del Monaco, the son of the great tenor Mario Del Monaco.
The main event was Domingo going where no tenor (not even the great Del Monaco) has gone before, singing the baritone title role in Boccanegra. Domingo began his career in Mexico as a baritone, and has always sung his tenor role with rich, burnished low notes, so the switch (while dramatic, and cause for a sold out crowd) was unsurprising given Domingo’s longevity and versatility.
The surprise to these ears was that Domingo couldn’t quite pull off the baritone trick. Sure, he hit all the notes (though it wasn’t easy sometimes) but he couldn’t quite duplicate the deep, resonant sound of a true Verdi baritone. Luckily, Domingo is a strong enough actor (and the role of Simon Boccanegra, the first plebian Doge of Genoa) is right in his dramatic wheelhouse. The part has elements of many of his previous successful performances (Otello, Tamerlano, Andrea Chenier, to name a few) so his interpretation of the role is overall a success. The true tenor part in the opera (which Domingo used to sing) is Gabrielle, sung in these performances at the Met by Marcello Giordani. In this small part, Giordano is at his best, both lyrically and dramatically. The rest of the cast is more than adequate, if less than thrilling (notably James Morris, who disappoints as the villain Fiesco). In the pit of the Met once again is James Levine, back from injuries that kept him out for much of the fall and winter. He conducted with fire Verdi’s late, complex score. The opening night on Monday was nothing if not exciting.
24 hours later, Domingo was in the pit for Stiffelio—conducting the Met orchestra in an opera that he premiered (as a tenor in the title role) back in 1993. Domingo has long been considered a competent conductor, but with Stiffelio he seems in command of the music in way I haven’t previously (perhaps its because he knows the obscure Verdi score—only known about since the 1960’s—as well as anyone alive). The music is an odd mix of styles but Domingo kept it sounding stylish and lively.
In the title role of Stiffelio is Jose Cura, himself a Domingo protégé. Like his mentor, he’s a dark, baritonal, spinto tenor. Dramatically he’s not as strong as Domingo (who excelled in this role) but his stiffness works in the role of a conflicted Austrian preacher. On Tuesday night, the role of Stiffelio’s philandering wife was sung by soprano Julianna Di Giacomo who received the warmest ovation of the evening. Not a great actress (and to be fair, it’s not a great part) she has a lovely voice that blended well with Cura’s tenor.
Stiffelio and Boccanegra are certainly not Verdi masterpieces, but in different ways these two productions represent the old Met quite well. Handsome, old-fashioned productions that let you see these classics in their best possible light.
Image: Placido Domingo in the title role of Simon Boccanegra. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera taken at the Metropolitan Opera.