In spite of the international event, there’s
a rather provincial air to this. This image itself is fuzzier
than you would expect for a recording filmed within the digital
era, more like a third-generation VHS copy that has circulated
freebootingly among friends or a recording made from the television.
The orchestra has a raggedly homespun sound. It does not help
that a young American has been brought across the Atlantic to
demonstrate what Stravinsky called the “windmill school of conducting”
– and its inherent disadvantages. Though we are offered a language
menu this only means that Maestro Kohn will be described as
a “conductor” rather than a “dirigent” or whatever on the written
titles. Domingo acts as compère and don’t imagine anyone’s going
to translate what he says for you. I think he’s actually fairly
brief and to the point – as efficient in this role as in that
of a singer, really – but it seems quite long if you can only
pick out a word or two here and there. The occasional shots
of the public show a vast open-air arena stretching back into
the night, but we mostly see just the stage, unambitiously simple
and with a makeshift backdrop illustrating “Carmen”. Domingo
looks relaxed and somehow the impression is that of the great
tenor taking a rest from international stress, having a nice
evening on home territory among friends.
First among friends is Julia Migenes. While Domingo
is basically a singer, she is a singing actress. That is to
say, in the duet from “Carmen” which is the first sung item,
his singing is excellent, his manner dignified and authoritative.
Admirable, musicianly as he is, he doesn’t make your scalp tingle.
Migenes possibly sings less well. The blasting chest tones may
have their place in a raunchy Carmen but later on they don’t
quite suit Puccini. But she does convey emotional involvement.
Each rather shows up what the other can’t do.
Her concept of “Summertime” is pure opera, good
in its way. In spite of the above remark, her upper notes in
the high tessitura of the Puccini are confident and convey a
sensuality completely lacking from the Kiri Te Kanawa version
that circulates on all-too-many home videos as a maudlin accompaniment
to the scene among the violets in “A Room with a View”. One
cynically wonders if the choice of a lesser-known Puccini aria
to follow “E lucevan le stelle” – more excellent singing but
so little involved as to sound positively stoic – was not deliberate.
It certainly ensures that Migenes gets applause that is warm
but which does not exceed that earned by the great tenor, as
might have happened had she essayed “Un bel dì vedremo” or “Vissi
Another soprano is brought in for the duet from
“Il Gato Montes”. She’s OK but nothing special. After this Domingo
sings one of the few zarzuela arias that is reasonably well-known.
A guitar solo sounds a bit small in this context but Ernesto
Bitetto finds considerable range of colour in “Asturias” and
is received politely.
And finally a composer of light music, Manuel
Alejandro, appears on the podium to conduct Domingo in a couple
of his compositions – the second of which is repeated as an
encore. As a conductor he limits himself to beating time with
small gestures and no baton, but the orchestra, liberated from
the yoke of the flailing windmill that led the classical part
of the evening, respond gratefully with better rhythm and precision
than previously. Domingo is as ever the practised professional.
Maybe these agreeable songs really need a different sort of
voice altogether. The words, by the way, are by one of Alejandro’s
daughters. Given the Spanish habit of having half-a-dozen names,
Manuel Alejandro is actually a user-friendly foreshortening
of Manuel Alejandro Alvarez Beigbeder Perez, his father having
been Germán Alvarez Beigbeder (1882-1968), a “serious” composer
still remembered in Spain.
We also get a “composer documentary” as a “video
special”. The cover – there is no insert at all – doesn’t reveal
which composer it will be. Maybe, like the jokes in a Christmas
cracker, it’s a different one in each copy. Mine was Puccini.
If you don’t know the story of Puccini’s life and works it’s
a fair introduction. For illustration you get the cities Puccini
frequented in their modern (1998) form, Lucca in particular
appearing as a giant car park with some lovely historical buildings
scattered between the Fiats. Plus plenty of politically incorrect
drawings, photos and statues of Puccini with a fag in his mouth
– it was difficult if not impossible to catch him without except,
maybe, during his final unsuccessful operation for throat cancer.
The English narrator speaks clearly and adopts a good straightforward
tone. But, if you’ve got a text to read larded with Italian
names, you’d find out how to pronounce them properly, wouldn’t
you? Well, he wouldn’t. Just to give one, since it crops up
all the time, Puccini’s first name should be pronounced “Jackemo”
not “Gee-ackemo” which you only say if your horse is called
“Ackemo”. Since Puccini is universally known as an opera composer,
an original touch was to have the narration accompanied – too
loudly – by a string quartet. I suppose they are playing “Crisantemi”
– I don’t know the piece so cannot say. Or, since the music
doesn’t sound all that much like Puccini, perhaps I’m underestimating
their originality in playing something not by him at all. We’re
told at the end who plays but not what they play.
Really, this is essentially a television event.
Something you’d be glad enough to see once, over dinner – especially
if there’s football or a soap opera on the other channels –
but even Domingo’s greatest fans would surely feel that once
through is enough.