Not many classical musicians become critic-immune icons while still actively performing, singers hardly ever – vocal cords, after all, tend to give out long before a pianist’s fingers. Besides, the world of opera is notoriously contentious, and even Luciano Pavarotti doesn’t get much respect these days as his career stumbles to its undignified conclusion. Plácido Domingo, on the other hand, can now apparently do no wrong, having grown into a beloved senior artist whose longevity, astonishing industry, and many achievements are so widely admired that any objective assessment of his multifaceted career is, for the time being, virtually irrelevant. Proof of that came at the Metropolitan Opera after the opening-night performance of Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila, a love-in celebrating Domingo’s 30 years with the company as Met officials, Mayor Giuliani, the entire cast, and a cheering house all but elevated the tenor to sainthood. And who would dare, or even want, to argue with them?
As a Domingo follower who has seen and heard him a lot over the years – all 39 of his Met roles, most of the 17 opening-night performances, perhaps a quarter of his 531 total appearances in the house, and frequently in other parts of the world – I wouldn’t call this one of his more memorable evenings, but never mind. The fact that a lyrical dramatic tenor has survived to sing Samson this well at age 57 surely qualifies him as a phenomenon of sorts. If Domingo actually is several years older than he admits to (as many believe), that only makes his accomplishment all the more amazing. And yet even the tenor himself might confess that his voice shows signs of aging. Few singers have been willing to discuss the singular timbre, texture, and condition of their voices more frankly than Domingo, and in any case, that unfortunate cracked high B flat at the end of the opera, more symptomatic of a chronic problem with top notes than a momentary lapse, can’t be conveniently talked away. On the whole, though, this was a typically shrewd Domingo performance: deliberately paced, sturdily sung, and carefully contained to give an audience just enough and no more – a rationed expenditure of effort that offers perhaps another explanation for this singer’s long career.
Except for the presentational fireworks after the final curtain, this was a bland Met opening, only in part because of the characteristically businesslike performance of its hero. Olga Borodina sang Dalila beautifully much of the time, although her soft-grained mezzo-soprano tends to lose presence in the middle and lower registers, where this seductress must make her most compelling dramatic and musical points. During their long duet together in Act Two, neither she nor Domingo generated much theatrical tension, let alone sexual energy, and if that crucial scene can only amble along efficiently, the whole opera starts to appear flabby and second-rate. Conducting the opera for the first time at the Met, James Levine presided over a facelessly generalized account of a score I suspect he doesn’t much care for. Sergei Leiferkus’s nastily rasped High Priest of Dagon perked up the dull proceedings onstage whenever possible, and the many choral passages are stunningly sung. I continue to enjoy Richard Hudson’s painterly sets, with their hot-and-angry colors and bold indications of culture clash, although the complex visual dynamics of Elijah Moshinsky’s original staging seem to have been lost.
The next evening, Domingo was back at the Met for Aida – not to sing Radames but to conduct the opera, a function that will no doubt soon occupy even more of his time. His stints on the podium are now frequent enough not to be greeted as either a miracle or a gimmick – even when Domingo’s baton technique was less practiced, there was never a question about the professional quality of his work. Of course, the Met orchestra could probably play Aida in its sleep, but smooth coordination between stage and pit does not happen automatically, and here the conductor seemed fully in charge. Having heard Domingo conduct a dozen or so operas, I never sense much specificity or individuality in his approach.
Onstage, the performance offered further melancholy evidence that generously endowed Verdi singers, once so plentiful, no longer roam the earth – even in Russia, where the Met now looks so hopefully for fresh vocal talent. Maria Guleghina began promisingly as Aida, but after a misadventure with an exposed high C in “O patria mia,” her voice quickly wore down and veered out of control. Looking squat and unheroic, Vladimir Bogachov strutted stiffly and emitted unpleasant sounds as Radames, and Nina Terentieva’s parched mezzo barely qualifies her as a decent provincial Amneris. Only Gregg Baker’s imposing Amonasro was up to Met standards in what was otherwise a lackluster Aida, and I fled after Act Three.