The bravos and foot-stamping began the second Plácido Domingo was spotted walking onstage Sunday, leading to a standing ovation that lasted well over a minute. In Domingo’s first performance since sexual harassment allegations surfaced against him, the crowd cheered every one of his big moments. He had to stop the standing ovation at the final curtain call, not wanting to take away love from the other performers.
There were signs this was coming. The audience entering the imposing Grosses Festspielhaus, the Great Festival Concert Hall, during an afternoon thunderstorm was tony — tuxes, kimonos and other manner of formal dress. Hopefuls stood by the doors with signs asking to buy tickets to the sold-out Salzburg Festival concert performance of one of Verdi’s lesser-known operas, “Luisa Miller.”
In the lobby there was what looked like a little shrine to Domingo, a stand selling CDs and videos, along with glossy press photos and shots of the opera star in recent productions. Only two of the affectionate postcard caricatures of Domingo were left. Elsewhere at the counter, there were all the Esa-Pekka Salonens or Anna Netrebkos you could want.
This was Domingo’s first public appearance since the Associated Press reported that eight singers and one dancer accused one of opera’s greatest, oldest and most beloved stars of unwanted sexual advances. The accusations, all but one anonymous, led the Philadelphia Orchestra and San Francisco Opera to immediately cancel Domingo’s appearances next month. The Los Angeles Opera, where Domingo is general director, has begun an investigation.
But as in other parts of Europe, here in this green Austrian town at the foot of towering Alps, where people look askance at the U.S. over our environmental, economic, immigration and diplomatic policies, the divide now encompasses both politics and Plácido. His support appears to come from his fellow performers, institutions and the public. None of Domingo’s European engagements have been canceled.
In many ways his Salzburg reception was an ironic, over-the-top statement. Domingo wasn’t in the best of voice, his tone raspy at first, although ever the old trouper, he was powerful and always winning. His defiance made for great theater when the Miller, an old soldier, called on God to spare his daughter the fate of being prey to a seducer.
Even so, he was hardly what made this a terrific performance overall. Were it not for the #MeToo controversy, the real news would not be about the 78-year-old Domingo but what this “Luisa Miller” says about L.A. Opera. And what this year’s venturesome Salzburg Festival — the world most extravagant and ambitious performing arts festival — says about L.A. Opera.
Under different circumstances, the news might well have been the belated Salzburg debut of James Conlon, L.A. Opera’s music director. Conducting his 500th Verdi opera, he had as much, if not more, to prove as Domingo.
He didn’t get the full Salzburg treatment. No staging, just singers in their tails and gowns standing and often awkwardly singing with minimal enactment. The orchestra wasn’t the plush Vienna Philharmonic, which plays in the pit for most of the operas, but the less splashy Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg. The cast featured the fiery Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze, a regular with L.A. Opera, and otherwise maybe an only slightly more impressive cast than would be typical in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Yet from first to last, Conlon carried the drama forward with extraordinary vigor and dramatic pacing. The Mozarteum sounded spectacular. Machaidze as Luisa and tenor Piotr Beczala as her lover, Rodolfo, were commanding. Even without staging — at one point Machaidze did put her head on Domingo’s shoulder as an obvious sign of affection — the impact of this performance was vastly more powerful than any Verdi in the Dorothy Chandler.
The only thing that made it so was acoustics. With the orchestra onstage and in a hall (nearly as big as the Chandler) with direct and immediate sound, everything changes. Two decades ago, when the building of Walt Disney Concert Hall had stalled, the Los Angeles Philharmonic played Stravinsky in a hall in Paris where every note made a vivid impression. Members of the orchestra board and L.A. patrons went along on the trip and heard what this ensemble could do under Salonen. After this, it was certain that Disney had to go forward.
Sadly, there was no show of L.A. Opera-ites here, presumably because of a need to distance the company from Domingo during the investigation. (Read what you will into Conlon’s continued devotion to this performance.) But there is more to L.A. Opera than Domingo. Had the Music Center brass and L.A. County supervisors been less occupied with a new plaza and not what matters most, the theaters, maybe a trip to Salzburg could have done the trick for the long-delayed renovation of the Chandler.
In fact, L.A. Opera connections are bookending this 99th edition of the Salzburg Festival. It began on July 20 with L.A. Opera resident conductor Grant Gershon conducting his Los Angeles Master Chorale in Peter Sellars’ profoundly spiritual production of Orlando di Lasso’s end-of-time “Lagrime di San Pietro.” A repeat performance of “Luisa Miller” on Sunday night will be the last performance of the festival.
In between, there have been such reminders of the L.A. Opera as Mozart’s “Idomeneo,” also directed by Sellars, who worked with L.A. Opera in the 1990s (though now is principally connected with the L.A. Phil).
The most talked-about director this summer in Salzburg has been Barrie Kosky for his wondrously outlandish production of Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld.” Kosky opens the L.A. Opera season next month with his production of “La Bohème.”
The revelation of the summer for many was discovering George Enescu’s early 20th century opera, “Oedipé,” which was designed and directed by Achim Freyer, not seen in L.A. since his fanciful, historic Wagner “Ring” production. It just so happens that Lawrence Foster, a native Angeleno, was responsible for the modern revival of “Oedipé” some years ago. It also just so happens that Foster conducted the first performance of L.A. Opera in 1986, Verdi’s “Otello,” staring one Domingo. At intermission of “Oedipé,” Freyer told me he loved L.A., sounding as though his bags are packed and he’s waiting for a phone call.
The lesson in all this is not complicated. Whatever housecleaning may wind up being necessary at L.A. Opera, we must not let Domingo be an all-consuming, burn-the-house-down distraction. Instead, we need to set sights on the way forward. A week in Salzburg is all it takes to witness just the kind of greatness, night after night, that is within our reach, whether or not Domingo remains in the picture.