Domingo Goes Baroque

Plácido Domingo in Handel's
Plácido Domingo in Handel's "Tamerlano," which opens at the Washington National Opera tonight. (By Karin Cooper)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Plácido Domingo, often called the Energizer Bunny of operatic tenors, is taking the storied "twilight of his career" into a whole new dimension. For anyone who may have missed him in the past four or five decades, here's the precis: He is officially 67 years old, he directs two opera houses, he conducts, and he continues to sing actively and very respectably. When he calls from Madrid to be interviewed about his latest new role -- Bajazet in Handel's "Tamerlano," which opens tonight at the Washington National Opera -- it is 3 a.m. there.

Forget the twilight. Domingo has pushed his career into the wee hours of the morning, and is still going strong.

Bajazet is his 126th new role -- not counting a few tiny parts at the beginning of his career. The striking thing is that it brings Domingo into entirely new terrain. With age, as he has been compelled to abandon the heroic verismo roles of his glory days, he has come up with all kinds of new things in various underexplored corners of the repertory -- Alfano's "Cyrano de Bergerac," anyone? -- but this season has effectively led him into a different camp: that of baroque opera. Before Gluck's "Iphigénie en Tauride" at the Metropolitan Opera in November, his last foray into the 18th century was Rameau's "Hippolyte et Aricie" in 1966 -- an endeavor he dismissed as a "sin of my youth" in a recent interview with the German newspaper Die Welt.

"Always I have the itch looking for new roles," Domingo says. "Now I have to look for ones that are vocally right, also age-right. You cannot be playing a character who is the age of Romeo."

Baroque opera might seem to be counterintuitive for an older singer: It requires greater vocal flexibility and lightness than Puccini, Verdi or Wagner, as well as being more stylized (by today's standards) and much longer. The Washington Opera's performing edition will clock in at about 3 1/2 hours, and that's with substantial cuts. On the other hand, it is often touted by singers as a kind of vocal medicine. The part of Bajazet has its difficulties, Domingo concedes; it lies in the part of the voice called the "passaggio," the transition between middle and high voice. But, he adds, "one thing that I notice with baroque music: The next day after you sing, you feel good in voice."

Bajazet is also a rarity in the Handel oeuvre -- a meaty tenor role. Most of Handel's lead parts were written for castrati, and today sung by countertenors such as David Daniels, a star in his own right, who is singing the title role in Washington. Bajazet, however, was written for Francesco Borosini, the first major Italian tenor to appear in London, who influenced Handel's final revisions for the opera's premiere in 1724. Borosini had some authority, since he had already sung the same role in a Gasparini opera based on the same libretto, which Vivaldi also set. (The story of the brutal, mercurial Central Asian conqueror Tamerlane is similarly in vogue today; Washingtonians saw another version of it in November, when the new Harman Center for the Arts opened with Marlowe's "Tamburlaine.")

When he met Domingo for the first time last year, Daniels says, "I told him if there's any Handel role, this is the one he should be doing. I think exactly what this role needs is an older" -- he catches himself, tactfully -- "a larger lyric sound.

"It's not a role that calls for a lot of baroque stylistic stuff," Daniels adds. "Just an amazing death scene at the end, like 'Otello' " -- referring to the Verdi opera that was for a time among Domingo's calling cards.

"Tamerlano" will be the current calling card. Domingo sang the role for the first time in March in Madrid, in a production by Graham Vick that will go on to London's Covent Garden and Milan's La Scala and will appear on DVD. But it's a measure of how far we have moved from the opera world of 30 years ago, when Handel was thought to be too long and boring for performance by any but specialty companies, that even "Tamerlano," though darker and more somber than Handel's most popular operas, appears with some frequency today. Daniels is also coming to Washington straight from another "Tamerlano," this one in Munich. And Chas Rader-Shieber, making his Washington debut as "Tamerlano's" director, staged the piece in 2003 in the diminutive Dock Street Theatre for the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C.

"How to tell that story and describe those thoughts in a great big space has got to be different," Rader-Shieber says. It is important, he says, not to let figures he describes as heroic be dwarfed by the larger scale.

One help is Washington's luxurious casting.

With Domingo, playing the role of a conquered ruler fighting for his daughter's honor, "you're talking about a guy who is heroic before he walks onstage," he says. "Plácido can play all of this character. He's a heroic figure in a beautiful way. And Bajazet is a heroic figure in a flawed way. It allows you to play the not-so-nice things about him and there's still a center of him; you know he's a good, good man. It's a way of putting a singer in a role and saying, 'Let's take advantage of everything he has to offer.' "

Meanwhile, Daniels offers "a layer of sophistication and elegance" that helps explain the character of Tamerlano. "He didn't get where he was by being a sword-wielding, mustache-twirling barbarian," Rader-Shieber says.

The director has won kudos in the past for delightfully zany stagings of lighter Handel operas, such as "Flavio" at the New York City Opera. But "Tamerlano," he says, is about emptiness, the moment of transition when one culture has been swallowed by another. "It's a tragic evening."

"I think this piece sounds different from other Handel operas because it is different," he says. "People are confused that entertainment means fun. That's wrong; it's entertaining if you illuminate. If you walk out of the theater a little more human than when you walked in, you have been given something."

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