Opera review: Plácido Domingo sparkles as baritone in 'Boccanegra'

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 8, 2010; C04

Plácido Domingo, the tenor, embarked this season on a world tour as the lead in Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra," a baritone role he's long said he wanted to sing before he retired. It isn't the first time the 69-year-old Domingo has essayed baritone roles. He started out as a baritone, recorded "The Barber of Seville" in 1992 and took on Oreste in Gluck's "Iphigénie en Tauride" -- albeit in a version reworked for tenor -- at the Met in 2007 (he will reprise it in Washington next season). Still, it was open to question, when Domingo sang his first "Boccanegras" in Berlin last October, whether his foray would be anything more than a stunt.

On Saturday afternoon, in the live HD broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera, he demonstrated that it was far more than a stunt.

"Simon Boccanegra" is, unfairly, not one of Verdi's best-known operas, in part because of the complicated plot: The prologue takes place 25 years before the main action, and Verdi revised the work 24 years after he wrote it. But it's a gorgeous and deeply satisfying piece because of the subject -- a flawed human being doing his best to be a good leader -- and because of the music, which hops, not displeasingly, from the beautiful melodies of Verdi's middle years to the rich impasto of his later ones.

In the prologue, Boccanegra is a pirate who has had an illegitimate child with his girlfriend. After Domingo warmed up, his tenorial ping was not inappropriate to convey the ardor of a younger man.

In the body of the opera, he is the Doge of Genoa, sick of political strife and trying to curb his own hot temper. It was here that Domingo really proved himself. One expected him to do well in the emotional recognition duet (the scene in which Boccanegra finds his daughter after 25 years is one of the reliable tear-jerkers in opera). Even more impressive, though, was his singing in the magisterial council chamber scene, the most significant of Verdi's revisions, when the Doge outlines his vision of peace for his rebellious subjects.

The role turned out to be a natural for an aging tenor superstar. Domingo's stature and authority, onstage and in his singing, supported a portrayal offered with tremendous honesty and integrity. The higher cast of his voice in the role was notable at some points -- a hotblooded tenor sound broke through when the Doge lost his temper at his daughter's beloved, Adorno -- but at the same time, he mustered rich low notes in the council chamber.

The HD broadcasts are seductive: They smooth over differences between voices and make everyone sound great. But James Morris, as Boccanegra's old enemy, Fiesco, offered more the shape of a villain than the sound of one, growling out sketchy low notes. Adrianne Pieczonka, who sang the daughter, is more a Wagner/Strauss soprano than a Verdian; she had some difficulty with the graceful high line of her opening aria, but after that sang soundly, with a workmanlike approach.

Most poignant, perhaps, was the Adorno of Marcello Giordani, singing a role Domingo has sung himself with the same sincerity and vigor the older man brought to the Doge, in one of the best outings I've heard from him in some time. Even he, though, didn't equal the contribution of James Levine, who in the pit matched Domingo in a demonstration of autumnal authority.

The broadcast of "Simon Boccanegra" will be shown again on Feb. 24.

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