People who don’t like opera just don’t understand. Opera is not so much an art as a sport. It’s often a question of who can sing highest, lowest, loudest, softest, longest and with the most dexterity. Which brings us to tenor Placido Domingo, who a few years ago entered the baritone repertory with the title role in “Simon Boccanegra.” As evidenced by Saturday’s perf at LA Opera, Domingo is the world’s greatest opera athlete.
First off, he’s already had a 50-plus-year career, twice as long as most opera singers. There’s nary a wobble in the voice, he never cuts a phrase short due to lack of breath, and now that he’s singing baritone there’s no problem with his top (never this singer’s glory) and his low notes are impressive. And he displays something else with his Boccanegra, the sympathetic mercenary-turned-doge who tries to bring peace to Venice and Genoa in the 14th century. Back in his tenor prime, Domingo was praised for his musicianship and voice but oft-critized for offering generic portraits onstage.
Not true with Boccanegra. This is a nuanced, deeply committed portrayal of a politician caught between the love for his long-lost daughter, Amelia (Ana Maria Martinez), and his loyalty to an old supporter, Paolo (Paolo Gavanelli), who poisons him.
The contrast between Domingo and Gavanelli, the night’s two baritones, is intriguing. It also points to the one caveat to Domingo’s triumph here. While Gavanelli’s lower register is actually less audible than Domingo’s, he provides the more genuine baritone sound. Being a baritone or tenor involves more than hitting all the notes; it’s about where the voice is placed. Domingo’s is placed high, Gavanelli’s much lower. When Gavanelli voice rises, there’s a thrilling knife-like quality that cuts the music as this darker-sounding instrument ascends the scale. It’s a tension that’s missing with Domingo.
Meanwhile, the role of Amelia’s father, Fiesco, has been given to a bass who sounds more like a baritone, Vitalij Kowaljow. Add to that the exceedingly bright voices of the soprano Martinez and the tenor playing her lover, Adorno (Stefano Secco), and one of Verdi’s darkest operas sounds a little less ominous and foreboding than usual. Still, James Conlon navigates smoothly between Verdi’s outbursts of passion and his delicate impressionism, most beautifully rendered by Martinez, who easily dominates the big ensembles and displays a genuine trill. Secco also impresses. He and Vittorio Grigoli, another recent LA Opera debutant, signal a renaissance for Italian tenors.
Director Elijah Moshinsky turns the chorus into another character, one that often resembles one big seething political animal about to strike. Otherwise, his staging (a co-production with Covent Garden) doesn’t get in the way of the singers who pretty much stick to the downstage area. A few columns and a moving wall of graffiti (it’s Italy) create effective stage pictures courtesy of set designer Michael Yeargan.