Plácido Domingo
Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864)
Sélika – Shirley Verrett (mezzo)
Vasco da Gama - Plácido Domingo (tenor)
Inès – Ruth Ann Swenson (soprano)
Nélusko – Justino Díaz (baritone)
Chorus, Ballet and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera/Maurizio Arena
Stage production: Lotfi Mansouri
rec. live, San Francisco Opera House, 1988
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio 4:3; LPCM Stereo [2 DVDs: 194:00]
Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834-1886)
La Gioconda
La Gioconda – Eva Marton (soprano)
Enzo – Plácido Domingo (tenor)
Barnaba – Matteo Manuguerra (baritone)
Laura – Ludmila Semtschuk (mezzo)
Alvise – Kurt Rydl (bass)
La Cieca – Margarita Lilowa (contralto)
Chorus, Ballet and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Adam Fischer
Stage Production by Filippo Sanjust
rec. live, Vienna State Opera, 1986
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio 4:3; LPCM Stereo [169:00]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Samson et Dalila
Samson – Plácido Domingo (tenor)
Dalila – Shirley Verrett (mezzo)
High Priest of Dagon – Wolfgang Brendel (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera/Julius Rudel
Stage production by Nicolas Joel
rec. live, San Francisco Opera House, 1981
Region Code: 2 & 5; Aspect Ratio 4:3; LPCM Stereo [111:00]
ARTHAUS MUSIK 107511 [4 DVDs: 474:00]

Somewhat like their Vienna set, this Domingo box set gathers together three very attractive performances featuring the great tenor, as first among equals. These are traditional productions that have a lot going for them.
Any French Grand Opera is a rarity nowadays, so if you’re going to do one you might as well do it properly. Thankfully, that’s exactly what this 1988 production of L’Africaine from San Francisco does. Lotfi Mansouri’s staging is grandly traditional, embracing the period and style and satisfying the most conservative elements of its audience. Don’t expect groundbreaking insights, but that’s not really what you go to this genre for, is it? The Council Scene of the first act is pleasingly ostentatious, the deck of the ship for Act 3 is impressive, and the scene before the Indian temple is quietly grand. The same is true for the costumes, though the hoop dresses given to the European ladies suggest more 19th than 16th century. The story of Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India, and the Indian Queen who falls in love with him - confusingly referred to in the title as the African Girl - is clunky and all over the place dramatically. It’s not helped by the fact that Meyerbeer died before the first performance so he didn’t have a chance to revise it or slim it down. The music, too, is rather twee in places, at times succumbing to the worst excesses of 19th Century Orientalism. However, there are some very attractive moments, most famously the great tenor aria, O Paradis. There are also some great duets and a diverting Liebestod for the heroine in the final scene. Domingo himself is on cracking form here, and the production might as well have been built around him. He embraces the part of Vasco with no embarrassment about its deficiencies. In doing so he turns him into an exciting, if rather unattractive, hero. He sings O Paradis with fervent passion and brings the house down in doing so, but his duets with Selika in the Fourth Act are just as exciting. Shirley Verrett gets off to a rather unsteady start as Selika, making heavy weather of her exotic Act 2 aria, Sur mes genoux. That sad, her interpretation grows in stature and she sings beautifully in the scenes where she renounces Vasco for the sake of Ines. Her husky voice is good at conveying the otherness of the Indian Queen, but I couldn’t shake off a feeling that she was ever-so-slightly past it by the time this was recorded. Not so Ruth Ann Swenson, whose purity and fullness contrasts her well with Verrett, singing two wonderful arias at opposite ends of the opera. Justino Díaz is a little more troubled, though. Despite some excellent singing of the sea shanty of Act 3, it is rather too apparent that his best days were behind him by 1988. Still, it’s good to have a successful DVD of L’Africaine, and you’re unlikely to see another coming along any time soon. If you want to explore then you can buy this one with confidence.
The same is true for this lovely Gioconda. This ultra-conservative production is in true stand-and-deliver style, with painted flats and whimsical costumes. It allows the story to be told clearly and directly and it isn’t ashamed to take this opera for the blood-and-thunder melodrama it is. Eva Marton, whose voice has always come across more successfully on live than on studio recordings, here sounds fantastic. The big voice is shaded down to evoke Gioconda’s vulnerability. She plays a most convincing victim, while exuding just enough sex appeal to make it obvious why Barnaba is interested in her. Domingo is at the top of his game here, obviously much younger and more vigorous than on his 2002 studio recording for EMI. Cielo e Mar will knock your socks off, but the rest of the role also benefits from the sheer virility of his singing, almost making Enzo an attractive and believable character. Manuguerra’s Barnaba is sly and malevolent, though less impressive than Rydl’s imperious Alvise. Only Semtschuk’s Laura is a little anonymous, but this won’t detract from your enjoyment of a very successful production. Fischer manages to draw a beautifully warm sound from the Vienna strings and the sense of a great occasion is well captured.
Back to San Francisco for Samson, and here the production is, if anything, even more lavish than for L’Africaine. The stage sets are reminiscent of a Hollywood Biblical epic, and Nicolas Joel pulls out all the stops (literally!) for the final scene in the temple of Dagon, which collapses most convincingly. Domingo sings well in the first two acts, but rises to a thrilling climax in the prison scene before pulling the house down at the end. Verrett is a convincing temptress and uses her wiles effectively, sounding much better than she did in L’Africaine. The whole mood of the production changes when she appears in Act 1 and Mon coeur s’ouvre is the centrepiece of a commanding performance. Wolfgang Brendel is an equally commanding High Priest, though he has to suffer a range of ever more ridiculous costumes. However, with singing of such quality you can even forgive the enormous bouffant under which Domingo has to sing the first two acts. The choral singing, very important in this opera, is also very impressive and my only criticism is that the stereo sound is rather boxy and makes it difficult to pick up inner details of the texture. If you want a solidly traditional production, complete with idols and writhing temple dancers, then you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.
So, to finish where I started, Arthaus have again gathered a trilogy of Domingo performances that showcase the great tenor at his best. They also succeed in averting the danger of a one-man-show. These are great ensemble performances of highly enjoyable operas and the price is very good value too. This is a set to indulge in.
Simon Thompson
Great ensemble performances of highly enjoyable operas and the price is very good value too. A set to indulge in.