By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 15, 2005
NEW YORK -- There's a line in Act 2 of Franco Alfano's rarely heard opera "Cyrano de Bergerac" that marks a critical turning point in the sad story of a poet's unrequited love: "The Tiger's awakening." It's said to Cyrano, the artist with a short temper, a fast sword and an excruciatingly big nose. But it might well stand for the effect tenor Placido Domingo had on audiences Friday night at the Metropolitan Opera when he sang the title role, a new role and the 121st of his exceptionally long and productive career.
Domingo is a tenor in his sixties, singing at an age when most men have hung up their vocal cords. He has no professional need to learn new operas, and his stature in the annals of music history is already secure. But something drives him, something palpable when he sings, a kind of restlessness and curiosity and artistic integrity.
On Friday, a lovely spring evening, there was an electric sense of anticipation in the house. Act 1 was bumpy and chaotic, and made an uncertain impression. Domingo seemed short of breath, and the music (unfamiliar to almost everyone in the house) isn't easily digested on first hearing. But over the course of Act 2, the Tiger woke up, and in the end, it was a spectacular night at the opera.
The Met's new production of "Cyrano" feels like a gift. It is clearly a vehicle designed for Domingo, who can pretty much demand what he wants from opera houses. But fortunately for opera lovers, this is not a vanity project. Domingo is not squandering the enormous capital his popularity and artistic integrity have built. He is canny enough to know a great tenor role, a role that suits his voice and temperament, and Cyrano is almost ideal for him. He has thrown himself into the revival of an obscure, sometimes difficult, often extraordinarily rewarding opera. It is a worthy piece, a piece with the density to bear up under more exposure, a piece that will be good to have around long after Domingo has left it to other, younger tenors.
Alfano is principally known as a footnote: the composer who completed "Turandot" after its composer, Puccini, succumbed to throat cancer (too many cigars). It was a thankless task, fleshing out the final pages of a beloved master's work, and opera lovers, though happy to have "Turandot" in usable form, have never been entirely happy with the results.
But Alfano was a serious composer in his own right, albeit a lesser one than Puccini. His own style grafted the many currents of 20th-century musical experimentation onto a fundamentally Italian and operatic sensibility. Debussy, Korngold, Strauss, Ravel and of course the old master Puccini all haunt the pages of "Cyrano," which premiered in 1936. The music can be scattered and elusive and overfull of ideas, but the composer can't resist bringing things back to the core of Italian opera, a superheated, soaring lyricism.
The role works well for Domingo in part because he is getting on in years and is physically less convincing in heroic tenor parts. Cyrano is heroic, to be sure, but he is also ugly, with a self-lacerating streak. For much of the evening, Domingo moved with slouched shoulders, seeming to shrink and hide, just a bit, to convey a sense of psychic torment at physical deformity.
Domingo's age never worked against him except in the first act, when he didn't tie together Alfano's short burst of sung text into longer phrases. But it's a voice that warms up -- the old Tiger stirs -- slowly but radiantly, and Domingo knows how to marshal it strategically. By the final act, he was singing magnificently, hauntingly, capturing the pathos of a man who has thrown himself into life, but squandered the one thing he always wanted: the hope for love.
Of course it isn't the same voice it was 20 years ago. But Domingo's fans will remember these final moments with as much fondness as they do his younger, more athletic, more heroic sounds of youth. He is an artist dramatizing, with dignity, a graceful and generous transition into the last years of his career.
Listening to him die, gorgeously, in a role that flatters the voice in autumn, it is hard not to think: By God, he's smart. Everything comes together in this part, which he has saved for just the right moment in his vocal trajectory. Alfano's opera proceeds by a series of dramatic refinements, beginning with the chaos and bustle of French court life, downsizing to a smaller crowd scene in the second act, yet smaller in the third, ending with an intimate and heart-wrenching finale. The production, directed by Francesca Zambello, with sets by Peter J. Davison and exorbitantly rich costumes by Anita Yavich, followed suit. The first act offers the lavish design that always wows audiences at the Met. But by the last act, everything becomes more abstract, a study in autumnal colors and spare pictures. It's an intelligent staging, alert to the music and the drama.
"Cyrano" requires a big orchestra, a big cast and a big chorus. Conductor Marco Armiliato held together the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus with a sure hand in unfamiliar music of great complexity, and he made a strong case for Alfano as one of the great orchestrators of his time.
In the role of Roxane, the soprano Sondra Radvanovsky had a triumph, singing with a dark but slightly warbling tone, a sense of vulnerability, yet a voice of apparently limitless resources. Anthony Michaels-Moore sang the role of De Guiche, one of Roxane's many suitors, with oily charm, and Roberto de Candia made the role of Ragueneau, a pastry chef with a taste for poetry, memorably sad and comic at the same time. It was a heady night in New York. Because it's Domingo, and because this opera will only be seen three times this season, the house was full. No matter how Domingo sang, he would have been received with affection. But he performed far above the level that would simply have satisfied the crowd, and gave them instead something to remember.