Domingo Finally Has His Day at Gala


Placido Domingo, as all the opera world knows, is not just a great singer but an exceptionally sociable one as well. If there is an opera gala anywhere in the world, he is likely to be in it. And quite a few of them are for him these days--a 60th birthday celebration here, a 30th anniversary with an opera company there. Wednesday night was Los Angeles Opera’s turn. The celebration was an official welcome for Domingo as artistic director, a job he has held for nearly nine months in a company with which he has been closely associated since its inception 15 years ago.

But who’s counting? The cause was raising funds for the company, and the occasion offered Domingo a chance to demonstrate his deep connections in opera and show business. No less than three of the world’s finest fortysomething conductors--Kent Nagano, Valery Gergiev and Esa-Pekka Salonen--took turns in the pit of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. There were, of course, the requisite stars of opera on hand to perform. But this was also the first opportunity for Domingo to show off some of the new glamour he plans to give the company.

And the gala lost no time doing just that. John Williams, the evening’s other conductor, was announced first over a loudspeaker, his Academy Awards duly noted. He walked across the stage, in front of a backdrop night scene of downtown L.A., and down to the pit to open the program with his “Olympic Fanfare and Theme.” Next up was Nicole Kidman, who introduced Domingo (who didn’t really need introducing), but there he was with a big, affable smile on his face, looking happy as can be next to a dazzling actress.


And happy he remained all night long. Domingo, who rushed into Los Angeles from New York, where he stars in Wagner’s demanding “Parsifal” at the Metropolitan Opera next week, merrily sang duets with Frederica von Stade, Julia Migenes, Ricky Martin, Ruth Ann Swenson, Isabel Bayrakdarian and Jennifer Larmore. When Catherine Malfitano interrupted her melancholy performance of Kurt Weill’s song “Foolish Heart,” asking if there wasn’t someone who would dance with her, guess who shot out of the wings?

He had already waltzed very nicely with Von Stade. He sang in English, German, Spanish, French and Russian. His one aria and rare serious moment, from Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades,” was delivered with powerful intensity.

But it was hardly all Domingo’s show. A parade of actresses--Mira Sorvino, Kathy Bates, Sela Ward--served as emcees. Several of the singers were well-established stars, providing a study in various stages of vocal preservation or decline, as well as surreal hair fashions.

In consistently wonderful and elegant form (even in a hilariously tipsy Offenbach aria) was Von Stade, and particularly so in her torchy rendition of “Send In the Clowns.” Swenson, the one opera star in her prime, produced the evening’s most stunning singing, in “Juliette’s Waltz” from Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” and Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise. Migenes’ soprano is no longer sure, nor was there a reprise of the chemistry between her and Domingo, so evident two decades ago in the “Carmen” film, in their duet from Manuel Penella’s “El Gato Montes.” I’m not quite sure what Malfitano, who can still be an effective stage presence, was thinking, singing in her grandest and least steady operatic manner “My Man’s Gone Now” from “Porgy and Bess.”

Bass Samuel Ramey, who will be 60 next year (he’s a year younger than Domingo), has still pretty much got it--terrific in a Verdi aria from “Atilla” but overreaching in “Impossible Dream.” The young soprano, Bayrakdarian, singing arias from Puccini’s “La Boheme” and Korngold’s “Die tote Stadt,” proved fresh, secure and cautious. Larmore was worrisome, the mezzo-soprano seeming pressed in “Una voce poco fa” from Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” and making that worse by being impossibly cute. Though more suave than hot, Ricky Martin made a pleasant contrast in “Buen Borincano,” with Domingo eagerly if awkwardly joining in. Percussionist Evelyn Glennie was on hand for a virtuoso maracas solo, to an electronic accompaniment, that may be the most inconsequential piece the otherwise excellent young Mexican composer, Javier Alvarez, has written.

But at least Glennie and Martin provided a break from the orchestra. Nagano, the company’s new principal conductor, concentrated on the French, Italian and Spanish numbers, as well as the Act 3 Prelude to Wagner’s “Lohengrin.” Gergiev stuck with his Russian specialties. Salonen limited himself to the Korngold and Malfitano’s three Weill Broadway songs. Williams handled the rest of the Broadway.


Only under Williams, who conducted undemanding music and demanded very little even from that, did the band sound competent. The rest of the time the strings were scrappy, the winds ill-tuned. Even granted that there was very little rehearsal time, the ensemble playing was often an insult to the exceptionally high quality of musicians standing on the podium.

Domingo has been impressively bold in his choice of major conductors, but the program demonstrated more vividly than ever that the company cannot properly grow without an orchestral upgrade. Perhaps patron Alberto Vilar, the generous underwriter of the gala, could be persuaded to donate a couple of million dollars toward creating a first-rate orchestra--call it the Alberto Vilar Los Angeles Opera Orchestra, if you like. It would do the company more lasting good than a fancy new production or two.