A rare opera moment: Plácido Domingo and Renée Fleming at L.A. Opera show what might have been

In May 2014, Plácido Domingo and Renée Fleming flew into town to help Domingo’s Los Angeles Opera close the 2013-14 season.

The unwary might have thought that the two superstars were going to perform together. But the closest they came to performing with each other was a joint photo op.

Domingo went on to sing in Massenet’s "Thaïs," and Fleming in Andre Previn’s "A Streetcar Named Desire."

But when Domingo and Fleming appeared here again Friday night, this time it was for real. With L.A. Opera music director James Conlon — who happened to be celebrating his 66th birthday — in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion pit, Domingo and Fleming sang, charmed and entertained in a gala concert for L.A. Opera’s 30th anniversary season.


It was quite the event. Domingo/Fleming sightings have been pretty rare. Their only previous joint recital was in Chicago in 1998 with Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony, a concert partially documented on the Decca CD "Star Crossed Lovers" (some of which was recorded later in a New York studio).

Their performance together comes as Fleming, now 57, winds down her operatic appearances, and Domingo at 75 (!) now sings baritone roles, even though he still has the timbre of a tenor. A few pieces from their Chicago concert resurfaced, but several could not be done because Domingo no longer sings tenor parts.

The first half of the performance was mainly opera — and not the usual star turns.

First, they traded solo performances — Fleming in Leoncavallo’s "Mattinata," an aria from Boito’s "Mefistofele" and a gorgeous Duparc song "Phidylé;" Domingo in a selection from Giordano’s "Andrea Chénier" and a dramatic preview of his appearance in Verdi’s "Macbeth" here next fall.

A gentle duet from "Thaïs" gave us a brief glimpse of what a Domingo/Fleming "Thaïs" would have been like, although with a bit more rehearsal, it could have had a sharper focus. On his own, Conlon led a dynamic Verdi “La Forza del Destino” overture and, as stills from past L.A. Opera productions flashed nostalgically onscreen, a lovely Meditation from"Thaïs."

Domingo and Fleming have appeared in Verdi’s "La Traviata" at L.A. Opera separately but never together, so the Act II Violetta/Giorgio Germont confrontation scene was an extended, riveting look at what might have been.  Rehearsal time was reportedly short, but with the opera practically in their DNAs by now, they acted out their roles as if this was a fully staged production, singers and orchestra breathing and phrasing together.

The second half was lighter weight — three Lehar bonbons, two Rodgers and Hammerstein standards, Bernstein’s "Tonight" from "West Side Story" and "Candide" overture, Johann Strauss Jr.‘s "Tritsch-Tratsch Polka" and Spanish-language closers from Ponce and Moreno Torroba.

Domingo and Fleming poured on the vernacular charm, more comfortable with "Tonight" now than was evident on the Chicago recording, turning a mishap — Domingo stepping on the train of Fleming’s gown while dancing to the "Merry Widow" waltz — into a fine running gag.

There were three encores — a singalong "Besame Mucho" with Domingo, "La morena de mi copla" for Fleming and "Non ti scodar di me" for both (who were wielding microphones). They capped off the night by singing "Happy Birthday to You" to their maestro.  Interestingly, with a mic, Domingo sounded amazingly like his younger self, leading one to believe he could gratefully extend his singing career for as long as he wants.

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