By implication, coincidences imply plurals. The coincidence for me this last couple of weeks has been the arrival of two studio recordings by Plácido Domingo. Surely not a rarity I hear you say. Quite, except in this case they are separated by forty-one years! A tenor lasting so long? Well, not many do, some less than half that time before hanging up their shredded vocal chords. Taking the coincidental relationship a stage further, this very first studio recording by the truly legendary tenor came along with his latest, never say last, of a complete opera, made three years ago, that of Leoncavallo’s I Medici (DG).
Born in 1941, Domingo made his stage debut in 1957, as a baritone, singing zarzuelas. His first tenor role was as Alfredo in Verdi’s La Traviata, also in Mexico. That was in 1960. After that he joined the National Opera in Tel Aviv, learning his trade singing in over 300 performances, mainly in Hebrew! In 1965 he moved to the New York City Opera where he soon came to the notice of major houses. He had his debut at The Metropolitan Opera in 1968 and at Covent Garden in 1971 as the brief leaflet essay notes, in French and German as well as English, Domingo had just turned twenty-six when Rudolf Bing, the Met's then general manager, invited him to audition in 1967. The young Domingo chose Enzo's aria Cielo e mar from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, as his audition piece. Only a short time later, on the very day on which he made his debut at the Vienna State Opera as Don Carlos in Verdi’s opera, he received a telegram from Bing inviting him to sing Maurizio in Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur on 2 October 1968. For every singer, particularly in their younger years, ample time to study and prepare are vital before they appear on stage. This luxury was denied Plácido Domingo. Four days before his planned debut, Bing telephoned and told him to report to the Met at once in order to take over from an indisposed Franco Corelli as Maurizio in Adriana Lecouvreur. He had just completed an extra rehearsal of Turandot at the theatre alongside appearing in several performances at the New York City Opera in the course of the previous days. Jumping straight into a car he drove at high speed through New York's dense traffic, doing vocal exercises at the steering wheel. Although the performance began twenty minutes late, Domingo's premature Met debut was a triumphant success. A few weeks before this legendary debut at the Met, Teldec recorded the young tenor's first solo recital. In the light of his subsequent career the recording is a unique historical document, and is here re-released by Warner at bargain price.
The record companies quickly recognized Domingo as a most promising lyric-dramatic tenor and he has appeared in many complete recordings for all the major labels. His musicality and musicianship has enabled him to learn and sing over 130 roles and conduct in major opera-houses. The miracle of my coincidences is that on this disc, and in the 2007 recording of I Medici, the voice is obviously that of the same singer. There are additional overtones and an added patina on the later recording, more lyricism and freedom at the top of the voice in the earlier, more baritonal hue in the later. The vocal virility that is the particular hallmark of this collection is still present forty-one years later. This is despite his being the Otello sans pareil for a generation, from his first assumption of Verdi’s most demanding tenor role in 1968, and which none of his coevals - Corelli, Bergonzi, Pavarotti - were ever able to assume on stage.
Eleven operas are represented in this collection. I believe that there is only one that the singer did not go on to record complete in the studio, several more than once in halcyon days, now long gone, of studio recordings of complete operas. It would be foolish to pretend that in this recording his interpretation and characterisation matches that in at least some of those later recordings. Where he is heard to particular advantage here is in the freshness of youth compared to later recordings. It can be heard in the likes of Cielo e mar (tr.4) where the voice and ardent phrasing is easier on the ear than in his much later complete recording (see review). The same is less true of the extract from Ma se m'è forza perderti from Verdi’s Un ballo in Maschera. There the freshness of the voice does not compensate for rather less maturity of characterisation (tr.3). Similarly, in both studio recordings of Aida he concludes Celeste Aida (tr.9) with greater vocal elegance. He does, however, achieve a more appealing ending to Ah sì ben mio from Il Trovatore (tr.10).
The biggest pluses and enjoyments in this collection come with his open-toned, virile and expressive singing in the various extracts from the verismo operas of Mascagni (tr.1), Leoncavallo (tr.2) and particularly the extracts from two of Giordano’s works (trs.7 and 11). His singing of La dolcissima effigie from his Met debut opera Adriana Lecouvreur is characterful and nicely phrased. In Nessun dorma, now the tenors’ virility symbol, where Domingo has the benefit of an uncredited small chorus, his concluding top note is true and matches that of his equally famous Italian coeval (tr.6).
Plácido Domingo never spent much stage time in the bel canto repertoire. In many ways his voice has always been a size too big for the genre. His 1990 complete recording of Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor (DG 459-491-2) is far superior in characterisation than that here (tr.8). He lets the voice ‘sit’ on the notes and invests his phrases with more grace. If others could do that better than he, so be it, so much of what he did, particularly on record, and which is introduced in this collection, stands alongside the very best. For that, and for his vocal longevity, we must be thankful, as there are few who can stand comparison with him in his chosen tenor repertoire today.
Teldec’s recording in a warm acoustic is well balanced between voice and orchestra. The vastly experienced Nello Santi is the ideal conductor for the venture.
Robert J. Farr
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Cavalleria Rusticana (1889): Mamma, quel vino [4.11]
Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1857-1919)
I Pagliacci (1892) Vesti la giubba [4:09]
Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834-1886)
La Gioconda (1876) Cielo e mar! [6:03]
Franceco CILEA (1866-1950)
Adriana Lecouvreur (1902) La dolcissima effigie [2:48]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Turandot (1926) Nessun dorma [3:27]
Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)
Fedora (1898) Amor ti vieta [2:12]
Andrea Chénier (1896) Un dì, all' azzurro spazio [5:43]
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) Tombe degl'avi miei ... Fra poco a me ricovero...Tu che a Dio spiegasti l'ali [7:48]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Un ballo in Maschera (1859) Ma se m'è forza perderti [5:33]
Aida (1871) Celeste Aida [4:59]
Il Trovatore (1853) Ah sì ben mio [4:42]
Open-toned, virile and expressive singing. Every opera lover should have this recording in their collection.