Domingo: ‘You pitiful old man, a shadow of what you were’

As Placido Domingo sang that line in the third act of last night’s revival of Verdi’s Nabucco at Covent Garden, few in the house failed to register the pathos.

Domingo is 75, still singing for all he’s worth.

Wherever he appears, there are critical mutterings in the media that he’s not a ‘real’ Verdi baritone, or that he shouldn’t be taking up stage space at his advanced age.

On the strength of last night’s performance – and it showed great strength – these cavils are irrelevant.

Domingo is a Lear-like Nabucco, capable of summoning a swell of sympathy even in megalomania and dementia. No matter whether he’s proclaiming himself God or stumbling around in search of his spear, his voice has more colours in its palette than the next three cast members put together and he has yielded nothing of his stage presence, his ability to dominate. Not having heard him sing live for two years, I found no distracting signs of decline.

The power is slightly dimmed and the body creaks a bit as it bends, but this is a great singer who carries on bearing the flame – not because he’s chasing money or acclaim but, in exemplary and traditional fashion, to convey what he knows to the next generation.

A member of the Vienna Philharmonic messaged yesterday that he’d not heard a false note from him in a week of work. Nor did I. The pitch is perfect and the projection supple. Never having been a Domingo groupie, I warm to him more as the clock goes on. I was greatly moved by Domingo’s Nabucco. Who can ask for more? And what courage to sing a line that channels total attention to his own senescence.

For the rest, Jamie Barton had mesmeric moments as Fenena and Liudmyla Monastryka was a chilling Abigaille. The chorus was outstanding and the orchestra slightly under-cooked; Maurizio Benini conducted.

Designer Alison Chitty and the costume department disgraced themselves with three shapeless overcoats for the leading characters.

domingo nabucco

photo: ROH/Catherine Ashmore

UPDATE: Critics persists in graceless pursuit, here.

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  • Una says:

    I’ve only heard him do Simon Boccanegra. Can’t fault the singing or musicality as such but just sounds like a tenor singing baritone to me! A woman would never get away with it like that!

    • eb says:

      I have heard him regularly at the Met over the years. If a woman or anyone could be so compelling on stage as a performer, I would be willing to bet you would be most incorrect in that last statement.

    • Olassus says:

      Voice categories can be silly, and range and color must not be confused. Either the person has the notes or not. It means nothing to say a tenor is “baritonal,” for instance, unless the reference is to color (timbre), in which case there are better words to use.

    • Bruce says:

      Actually it’s not uncommon for sopranos to move to mezzo roles as they get older. Also, I seem to recall that he started as a baritone (back before the Flood).

      • Stanley Cohen says:

        At the end of 1962, he signed a six-month contract with the Israel National Opera in Tel Aviv, but later extended the contract and stayed for two and a half years, singing 280 performances of 12 different roles.

  • John says:

    How can you possibly claim to know his real reasons for continuing to perform? There are lots of ways to pass on your knowledge to the next generation, most obviously by direct teaching and coaching, rather than continuing to perform past your prime. Why not leave questions about his motivations at the door and instead concentrate on enjoying and evaluating the singing? I enjoyed his performance last night and have likewise warmed to him over the years, but I think claiming he had more vocal colours than the other principals put together is a bit much!

  • Peter says:

    There seems to be a lot of tut tutting over the Domingo move from tenor to baritone. Seems to ignore the fact that even within the range of baritone there is plenty of leeway up and down. Some end up singing bass roles too. As far as I’m concerned he is the foremost opera performer alive and if snooty perfectionists don’t like this then they can leave their seats for the many who do.

  • David Osborne says:

    What a good news story eloquently put!

  • Fair Go says:

    While entirely fair to report on the costumes, please can you reserve your disparaging remarks on style for the designer only – costume departments at major theatres everywhere (and especially at the ROH) excel at crafting costumes according to the wishes of the designers, often committing to creating exactly what is demanded of them regardless of their own opinions of the style (or lack thereof) of the costumes they are asked to create.

  • Tom Phillips says:

    Sorry it’s long past time for him to go – even more so than is the case with James Levine. This is simply epochal narcissism and vanity – as well as depriving deserving younger performers of opportunities in the “big leagues”.

    • Sue says:

      Totally agree with this. Let’s call “time”!!

    • Stanley Cohen says:

      There is a saying in British foot that If you’re good enough you’re old enough. The same can most certainly be said of Domingo in that if he’s good enough he’s young enough. His age is irrelevant.

      • Stanley Cohen says:

        -ball

      • Bruce says:

        I think the disagreement is about whether he’s still good enough, not whether 112 is too old. I like the saying though.

        • Stanley Cohen says:

          It’s all a matter of how one takes care of the instrument and of course, and even of greater relevance, of genetics. If the voice is still there it’s still there. We should also remember that Quiet Sunday began his professional career as a baritone anyway.

  • David Boxwell says:

    Banish greatcoats/dusters from the opera stage, especially if they’re leather! Also these tired, cliched items: goggles, lab coats, Ray Bans, combat boots, leggings, aviator helmets, foufy foulards, and “punk” T shirts.

    • Kurt-Friedrich Gänzl says:

      David Boxwell ,,, so, so agreed. But where would a Wotan be without a leather greatcoat? But what the (wal)halla!

      As to the casting of Domingo … why not? If he can do it as well as it seems he can, and if he sells tickets (which is actually the idea of show business) … the idea of standing aside for some youth is ridiculous, let youth make its own way ..

      There are some ageing performers who (fan club or not) SHOULD retire … but I don’t feel — even having not seen him in his present metamorphosis — that he is one.

  • Margit Rihl says:

    Has anybody ever wondered if Maria Callas’ timbre was “right” for Elvira (I Puritani) or Kundry or Carmen? The idea is ridiculous. This is not important if the portrayal of the character makes sense. And in Domingo’s case this is always – and even more so now in his late years of his career – so fascinating. There’s a saying of Hermann Prey which runs approximately like this: “If I know how to do it, I cannot sing any more.” Well, in Domingo’s case he not only knows how to do it, how to portray a character, but also how to sing. And it is absolutely beside the point if this is a tenor’s timbre or a baritone’s, there is a singer on stage who with all his soul fascinates the listener. This is a rare gift and I wish there were more singers like him – old or young.
    And he definitely does not take anybodys place (tenor or baritone) on the stage. If there are good young singers, they will make their way. If a singer of 75 can take away a young singer’s place on any stage, then something is terribly wrong with opera! Any young singer will profit by just watching him on stage and learn from him – and be fascinated by him.
    How lucky we are to live at a time when we can see and hear a singer like him.

  • Marshall says:

    Can’t accept your very peculiar logic. I heard PD many times in his prime years. and while an admirable artist, never my favorite tenor. Ironically, the problem was the ease of voice as a tenor, though some of my best memories were his last go rounds for Siegmund and Parsifal.

    He is blocking the assumption of roles by younger singers (that there may be few of quality is a separate issue) because his name alone is still box office, but at 75 there is an unacceptable vanity at work Your example of Callas makes no sense, because she was a soprano, and only did Kundry earlier in her career when she sang anything for a paycheck-and Carmen is often sung by sopranos, but if I recall she never sang it on stage.

    It’s not that PD is embarrassing himself, or there is no value in what he does, but it is precisely the issue that it is the wrong timbre, simply the wrong voice for the role. These are great Verdi baritone roles- he is not a baritone, the qualities of voice Verdi expected for the role, why he wrote it for that category to begin with, how the darkness of the sound and the special tension in a baritones’ passaggio is absent. Or do you think Verdi and other composers, didn’t “really” know what they were doing anyway, and nothing matters because an old tenor just wants to keep singing?

    The view that the voice category, the timbre appropriate for the role, the composer’s intentions are meaningless, is ridiculous.

    • Tristan says:

      I couldn’t agree more what your comment, ridiculous to compare the great Callas with Domingo who is like a critic one rightly said ‘meliore non-baritono del mundo’
      He is only scheduled as he still sells well – the results nevertheless are very poor

    • Tom Phillips says:

      Not to mention Callas’s career in staged opera was pretty much over before she turned 42 – with only a few recordings and concerts to follow (including the disastrous “reunion tour” with DiStefano).

  • Peter says:

    Having seen/heard a so called ‘proper’ baritone in the role at a public rehearsal last week, I’ll be able to judge whether or not PD is appropriately cast in this tomorrow. Having seen him in 2 previous Verdi baritone roles, I rather doubt he will sound or look out of place.

  • Brad says:

    I saw him as the father in La Traviata at the Met. He was spectacular. Loud, on the notes, and moving as an actor. I thank God that he is still able to perform for the benefit of people like me.

    • Marshall says:

      I am not quite sure what God has to do with it. I think his last “spectacular” performances were at least 20 yrs. ago. Did you ever hear a real baritone sing the role? I mean is this about cultism or about the vocal art?

  • Peter says:

    I saw last night’s performance. I’ve seen the ‘alternative’ and supposed real baritone Nabucco perform in this production run during the public rehearsal. I’ve also seen this role played previously by another baritone. As far as I’m concerned, Domingo is as worthy as anyone to play this, his acting and athleticism is a marvel and whilst his voice lacks a certain dark colour, it is definitely still a thing a beauty. To those grumps saying he isn’t a proper a baritone, frankly, I think that is just a matter of opinion to which certainly not many in last nights auditorium will have agreed or cared about.

  • Ca says:

    I saw him in Qatar in 2010 and even though he was recovering from a leg injury I loved his how featuring the original Spanish dancers he started with at the beginning of his career.

    Love Him

    Catherine

  • James Koenig says:

    I have great respect for Domingo as an artist– He won his place as one of the top tenors in the operatic world. Certainly one must reinvent and expand as one ages– to use and develop his musical skills as a conductor was his admirable prerogative. (But he would never get the “high end” conducting gigs without the Placid Domingo “brand.” And I believe it’s also part of many a negotiation. “I’ll do this— if I can conduct that.” And, by the way, my wife is a stage director. We live in a Hollywood world, and a name draw is valuable. As for having delved into the baritone roles, I’m conflicted. Certainly he has stage skills and can manage the roles vocally and dramatically. But Verdi (and others) wrote so wonderfully for the voice. The arch and climax of phrases is somewhat based on the cathartic effect of “overcoming” the danger. For a tenor to sing a baritone climatic line is something like someone seeing an aerialist on a tight rope, then realizing that the cable is lying on the ground or is only a foot off the ground. More importantly, it might be good sound, but it’s not the right sound. Verdi certainly considered the colors of the various voices in writing the ensembles. I just heard a very respectable Don Carlo in San Francisco, and the different sound of “instruments” in the ensembles is important. When L.A. Opera did Salome years ago with Maria Ewing (then wife of director Sir Peter Hall) in the title role, a very skilled singing actress created the role. She was tiny and Miley Cyrus-esque as the willful and malevolent teenage Salome. But after all was said and done, it wasn’t the right sound. It was a viola playing a trumpet concerto. The notes were right. It was perfectly delivered. The acting role was done wonderfully. But it wasn’t the right sound. Beyond all that– Domingo has certainly earned his accolades– no question. But now he’s taking opportunities from conductors and baritones. And he’s taking away the audience’s opportunity to discover new baritones and new conductors rising to the challenge of opportunity to shine in their own genre and “Fach.”

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