Review

L.A. Opera opens 30th season with Plácido Domingo staying busy

Mark Swed
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Music Critic

As the fourth-largest opera company in the U.S., Los Angeles Opera is not exactly a mom-and-pop operation. But it does have a pop cum Grand Pooh-Bah.

Plácido Domingo was a founder of the company and starred in its opening-night production of Verdi's "Otello" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1986. By now, he has sung 27 roles at L.A. Opera and conducted 21. For the first half of the company's history, he was its artistic consultant. For the second half, from around the time he turned 60 and at a reasonable age for a tenor to retire from the stage, he has run the place.

Except Domingo — who has actually trademarked his motto, "If I rest, I rust" — is not the retiring type. Saturday night, L.A. Opera began its 30th season with all the pomp of papa Domingo's hats snugly in place. He sang the title role in a revival of Woody Allen's cunning production of Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi." After intermission, with not enough time to get all of the black dye out of his gray hair and beard, he mounted the podium to conduct a revival of Franco Zeffirelli's eyeful of a production of Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci."

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That's got to be some kind of first. But can anyone, even Domingo, do it all?

He is, presumably, only human. He now sings baritone roles partly because his voice has naturally lowered (but not all that much — he still sounds like a tenor) and mostly because tenors tend to portray romantic leads, while older operatic characters are typically written for baritone and bass voices.

But four months before turning 75 is way past the due date for a baritone too. Domingo has had health issues. He's been said, on occasion, to sound wan and be short of breath.

Saturday night, however, singing the baritone lead role in Puccini's comic opera for the first time, Domingo sounded as if he could go on forever. He brought the unmistakable Domingo ping to the scheming Gianni Schicchi. He looked to be having the time of his life, especially surrounded by attractive young singers.

As for the other question: Is there still life in Allen's production of "Schicchi" and Zeffirelli's "Pagliacci"?

The two short operas are an unusual pairing, but the productions were hits, and turning them into a double bill for the first time makes sly sense. Allen's is a hysterical parody of classical Italian cinema. Zeffirelli, who was a real Italian filmmaker, became something of a parody of himself in the later part of his career, the part when his 1996 "Pagliacci" production was first given by L.A. Opera.

For this wickedly funny "Schicchi," the only opera the reticent film director has ever staged (Domingo's powers of persuasion played a part), Allen updates the story of an ancient, greedy Florentine family's enticing Schicchi to impersonate a wealthy, just-deceased ancestor to rewrite his will, only to be tricked out of the property by Schicchi.

The setting looks like a black-and-white film of the Visconti/De Sica era. The original production, which coincidentally starred another Allen — the renewed baritone Thomas Allen — as a brilliantly sardonic Schicchi, was a model of comic timing right up to a surprisingly nasty ending. But as revived by director Kathleen Smith Belcher, the staging lacks an inimitable Woody Allen touch, beginning with bland lighting, at least from where I was sitting on the far side, washing out the original chromatic starkness.

Domingo is quite amusing as a genial, godfatherish Schicchi, but that misses much of the point. The women were the most convincing, particularly soprano Andriana Chuchman as Schicchi's sexy, pouty daughter, who softens her father with the famous aria "O Mio Babbino Caro." Tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz remained her consistently guileless lover. But this did allow the deep mezzo-soprano Meredith Arwady as the most properly vociferous of the relatives to make a big impression. Grant Gershon conducted with an ear to keeping a large ensemble together and bringing out orchestral color, both of which are necessary. But now room needs to be found for raucous, irreverent comedy.

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For the Record
Sept. 14, 12:25 p.m.: An earlier version of this review misstated the title of one aria as "O Mio Bambino Caro." The correct title is "O Mio Babbino Caro."
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Just the opposite of Allen's "Schicchi," Zeffirelli's "Pagliacci" is a colorful show, full of acrobats, crowds of extras and lots of children — enough everywhere on stage you hardly need to notice the singers if you don't care to. But dazzlingly decadent dates quickly, and there seemed little the current director, Stefano Trespidi, for all his verve, could do.

For his part, Domingo — who not only starred in this production two decades ago but who made a touching film of the opera with Zeffirelli a dozen years earlier — compensated with a particularly robust sound in the pit. But such a spectacle requires huge personalities. If Domingo could have also been his younger tenor self singing along with his older self conducting, that just might have worked.

Marco Berti was a virile Canio, the homicidal clown. Ana María Martínez brought full voice to Nedda, Canio's unfaithful wife. George Gagnidze proved an articulate but not properly repugnant Tonio, who stokes Canio's jealousy. They were defeated by distraction.

Domingo's title with the company is the Eli and Edythe Broad general director. And given all the attention the new neighboring Broad museum is attracting, this might have been the time to get that Grand Pooh-Bah of the L.A. art world involved to create a production with one of the artists in the Broad's collection, just as La Fenice in Venice does with artists in the Venice Biennale.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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'Gianni Schicchi' and 'Pagliacci'

Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Sept. 24; 2 p.m. Sunday and Sept. 27; and 7 p.m. Oct. 3 (also simulcast free on Santa Monica Pier).

Tickets: $26 to $376

Info: (213) 972-8801 or www.laopera.org

Running time: 3 hours

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