Domingo goes solo
There could be a new lease of life for the aging tenor, says Norman Lebrecht
ON Sunday afternoon, Placido Domingo did something different. In front of a packed Carnegie Hall, with Daniel Barenboim at the piano, Domingo sang a solo recital for only the third time in his life. The first was last spring in Berlin, the second last week in Chicago. Is this a trend, or just making amends?
When Domingo started singing 40 years ago in Mexico City there were two-and-a-half career options for a good-looking tenor. He could sing opera; he could do recital tours; and, if he got lucky, somebody might book him to make a Mario Lanza movie. Titans of the top register – Gigli, Björling, Tauber, McCormack – spent much of their happy lives touring town halls from Preston to Peoria with a pianist in tow and a repertoire that ran from Bach to ballads.
Domingo, with his pal Pavarotti, changed all that. Busking in the park for a million bucks a night, they killed off the 2,000-seat recital and put a lot of good accompanists out of work. As for the stuff they belt out, it is all bumper arias and cavatinas, no gentle lullabies or lieder. The recital culture has been killed off, a victim of stellar dereliction.
Domingo, it seems, is beginning to backtrack, though my scouts in New York and Chicago report that he carved his way through Liszt’s Petrarch sonnets and Donizetti canzone without once raising his head from the score or communing with the wishes of a rapt throng. The tenors of yore would leaven their serious offerings with sweetmeats and lollipops. Today’s tenors reserve the crowd-pleasers for the Big Top.
Maybe Domingo will mellow with experience. It cannot be easy, at his ripe old age of 59, to start a new line of art – and this is not the only direction in which he is diversifying. A disc arrived the other day of Domingo singing Das Lied von der Erde and my jaw left its sockets in disbelief.
There have been mezzos who turned into sopranos, cornettists into conductors and cabbages into kings, but never in recorded history has a lyric tenor acquired the heroic tone and sheer temerity to approach Gustav Mahler’s penultimate masterpiece. The only southern voice ever sighted on these slopes was the Mexican Francisco Araiza, who recorded the work with Carlo-Maria Giulini; but Araiza was always inclined towards Wagner and his diary is packed these days with Lohengrins. Domingo, too, has sung a run of Siegfrieds, but with an orchestra well tamped-down in the pit and a score that gives a singer room to breathe. Das Lied is something else.
Mahler, who did not live to hear the premiere, wondered aloud whether Das Lied was performable. Having wrestled with recalcitrant singers in the Vienna opera, he pitched the tenor into the score at the top of his range, singing against an 80-piece concert orchestra playing double-forte. Some day I expect to find a manuscript with the composer’s inscription: “It’s payback time.”
The tenors at the 1911 premiere and in the 1936 first recording were both Americans, William Miller and Charles Kullman, the local warblers having refused to risk their precious cords. After 1945, the supreme interpreters were Julius Patzak and Fritz Wunderlich, the highest rank of heldentenor.
Domingo has been contemplating Das Lied for a decade or more. He had a test session with the late Klaus Tennstedt, but along with a dozen others, was found wanting by that ethereal rigorist. Domingo did not give up. His ambition has now found fruition with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with the Swedish baritone Bo Skovhus singing the alternate movements, an ill-considered substitute for the usual mezzo.
Suspending scepticism, I donned the headphones and was stunned. Instead of battling the orchestra head-on, Domingo’s bronzed tone somehow hits the wall of sound from an acute angle and surmounts it without difficulty. Both the colour and pitch of his lyric projection strike the ear as natural and beautiful, closer to Mahler’s intention than the customary Germanic strainings. Teuton syllables do not sit easily on his Iberian tongue and Salonen sometimes bends the tempo to accommodate an awkward phrasing. But setting aside these minor reservations, and Skovhus’s dull contribution, this recording is nothing less than a revelation.
Whether Domingo can sing Das Lied in the concert hall remains to be seen. The recording is a studio fake, Domingo’s sessions taking place two weeks ahead of the baritone’s and with a different production team. But the fact that he has sung the work at all is cause for amazement and rejoicing. It is a triumph of will, a vindication of self-belief and a reminder to the rest of us that dreams are there to be fulfilled and nothing is impossible. Life, perhaps, begins at 59.