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Plácido Domingo brings a grand 'Simon Boccanegra' to LA Opera

By Donna Perlmutter
Published: Wednesday, February 15, 2012, at 08:56AM
Courtesy LA Opera

Plácido Domingo in the title role of "Simon Boccanegra" with Ana María Martínez as Amelia.

Simmering obsessions just beneath the operatic surface? That must be Verdi you have in mind. And "Simon Boccanegra" is rife with the composer’s recurrent symbols of sorrow.

There, for all to see in L.A. Opera’s staging of the work, was his excavation of the father-daughter territory -- one more opera, alongside "Rigoletto," "Luisa Miller," "Aida," "Traviata," for working through the tragedy of losing his own two young children.

What’s more, Verdi gave us paternal grief as a double-whammy in "Simon": Two fathers, foes of each other, are both bereft of a daughter, with one who died, the other who was abducted.

But for Plácido Domingo, who brought Covent Garden’s appealing production of same to the Music Center this weekend to sing the title character, there was a new notch: his debut here as a baritone.

Yes, folks, the illustrious tenor -- 71 and the record-holder of more roles (138) and more performances (3500), than anyone in operatic history -- has added that lower-voiced category to his profile as general director of LA Opera and conductor-at-large, attempting to husband his resources.

And this is the opera – so rich in orchestral/vocal material -- that comes our way when there’s a celebrity baritone who wants to sing it. So now that Domingo, patron saint of our resident company, has done "Simon" in Berlin and other international music capitals, it was time.

To be sure, he rises to the occasion. His voice, with nary a wobble or insecurity in earshot, carries resonantly, if not amply.

His character – at first, a feisty corsair thwarted in marrying his beloved, then for the duration, the older, embattled Doge of medieval Genoa – aptly conveys its wide emotional arch. He is the woeful hero in this dim tableau of political plotting, after long ago suffering the death of his loved one in childbirth with the infant daughter stolen away, to boot.

But can we forget the heart-stoppingly radiant timbre of his tenor days? The ardent Cavaradossi whose voice rings out as he presses Tosca against a wall? Even the Siegmund who explodes in tingling rapture with his Sieglinde?

Not so fast. This lower-range voice now seemed as though a ceiling had been artificially imposed – in part because Domingo is not a baritone with an opulent spread of richness. Nor did he bring moment-to-moment spontaneity to the patriarchal, long-robed leader. Only in the final scene, when he falls dead while reaching out to his newly discovered daughter, did he catch the audience up.

Still, director Elijah Moshinsky, in sync with Michael Yeargan’s proportionately elegant sets and Duane Schuler’s expert lighting (especially the open courtyard’s daytime brightness for Amelia’s appearance), found a way to deftly clarify all motives for the other principals.

They were: Vitalij Kowaljow as a noble Fiesco who kept his anger smartly at bay when confronted with Simon, while pouring out suave basso tones; Ana Maria Martinez, as a remarkably agile and silvery-voiced, trill-endowed Amelia, the grown daughter at the center of this paternal triangle; Stefano Secco as her young suitor Gabriele whose bright tenor brought contrast to all the low male voices. Paolo Gavanelli as a not very villainous Paolo, who sang with that burnished, old-fashioned vibrato and infused the vocal line with generous legato.

James Conlon, presiding over the expert orchestra and thrilling chorus, luxuriated in Verdi’s most graphic music, whether stormy or lyric – delivering the glorious duets, the grand concertato, the gorgeous third act trio with visceral conviction.

The opera runs through Mar. 4. Click here for tickets and more information.

Donna Perlmutter is an award-winning critic, journalist and author. Formerly the chief music/dance critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, she contributes to the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

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