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Placido Domingo Without the Warts

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Placido Domingo is a fine tenor. Everyone knows that. He has a beautiful voice, and brains to match.

Thanks to the grindings of the greatest hype machine ever put at the service of would-be art, he functions as one of The Big Three. Everyone knows that too.

Domingo may lack the disarming all-Italian urgency of Luciano Pavarotti or the tender, vulnerable finesse of Jose Carreras at his best. But Domingo is, without question, more versatile than his friendly rivals, more comfortable in heroic assignments and better able to balance dramatic intensity with lyrical grace.

He also happens to be the busiest tenor on Earth. At 54, he sustains a superhuman schedule as divo in a wide range of operas. When he isn’t pursuing theatrical Verdi or Puccini or Wagner, he gives concerts and recitals, records love songs and even explores crossover challenges with John Denver. When he isn’t singing something or other, he conducts. And when he isn’t conducting, he runs an opera company or two.

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Does this jet-propelled, chronically overachieving Spaniard do everything equally well?

Of course not. But you’d never guess it from watching an adoring 90-minute documentary on PBS called “Placido Domingo: A Musical Life.” It will be presented, with pesky pauses for funding pitches, as part of the “American Masters” series at 7:30 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.

American Masters”? Although international fans no doubt claim Domingo as a citizen of the world, he was born in Madrid and now spends whatever time he can find for domestic bliss residing in Mexico and Spain. The cameras caught him last year in his lavish Acapulco retreat, where the grateful viewer can watch him self-consciously playing tennis, swimming, eating and crooning a pop tune with his three non-operatic sons. Then, it’s on with the motley.

Domingo offers flights of autobiographical reflection when he isn’t recording a zarzuela in Madrid, conducting “I Puritani” in Vienna, coaching “Idomeneo” with James Levine in New York, hosting an opera contest in Mexico City or singing Don Jose at Covent Garden in London.

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He talks casually about his art, and his craft, and illustrates his inherent wisdom deftly at the keyboard. His musicality is astonishing.

To flesh out the show, the producers interpolate sequences from the Domingo video archives. There are excerpts--some cruelly mutilated--from “L’Africaine” in San Francisco, “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” in London, “Otello” in the Franco Zeffirelli film (for which our hero is a dark-skinned Moor), “Otello” at Covent Garden (for which our hero is a light-skinned Moor) and a rather strained “Lohengrin” in Vienna. Some of the transitions between arias are bracingly abrupt.

A snippet of the vulgar triple-tenor triple-cadence of “La donna e mobile” at Dodger Stadium is thrown in for bad if undeniably characteristic measure. So is the high-class goo of “Perhaps Love.”

Then there are interview fragments, presumably stimulated off-camera by questions from producer-director Mick Csaky. Marta Domingo speaks of the joys of being the Great Tenor’s wife. Zeffirelli speaks of the macho Domingo’s ambi-sex appeal. John Tooley, former head of Covent Garden, speaks of Domingo’s varied talents and predicts, not incidentally, that Placido and Marta will work wonders at the helm of the Washington Opera (we didn’t know it was a dual appointment.)

No one mentions Los Angeles, where Domingo has served as official artistic adviser, frequent maestro and annual vocal hero ever since the inception of the Music Center Opera in 1986.

No one mentions the dangers of overexposure, or what drives Domingo to push himself so mercilessly. It may be worth noting, for example, that Domingo is scheduled to sing Wagner’s Parsifal, one of the most strenuous assignments in his repertory, at the Metropolitan Opera on April 22, and to conduct “Madama Butterfly” there that same night.

No one mentions Domingo’s relative lack of success on the podium, or the possibility that he might not be engaged to work in the pits of major opera houses if he didn’t happen to lead a double professional life. He is no charlatan with the baton, to be sure, but Domingo the conductor is hardly as talented as Domingo the singer. Ironically, the Vienna “Puritani” sampled here received mostly unsupportive reviews.

No one mentions that this would-be pirate of the high Cs has always had trouble with extreme top notes.

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The absence of a full perspective is regrettable, and doubly surprising when one reads the program credits. Michael Walsh, longtime music critic of Time magazine, is listed as co-executive producer and writer.

The historical footage--newsreel film and a few home movies--places the beginning of Domingo’s career in nostalgic perspective. One wishes for more iconography.

Too bad we can’t see Domingo making his 1957 debut, as a baritone, in a zarzuela called “Gigantes y Cabezudos.” Too bad we have no souvenir of Domingo singing an Italian part in Hebrew with the Israel National Opera, where he served his operatic apprenticeship from 1962 to 1965.

“Placido Domingo: A Musical Life” is much too placid to command attention as a serious biography. But the singing is terrific. And so is the puffery.


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