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MUSIC REVIEW

L.A. opera himself

Placido Domingo marks 40 years on the Dorothy Chandler stage in gala fashion.

April 21, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Music Critic

In the April issue of BBC Music Magazine, Placido Domingo tops a survey of the 20 greatest tenors of all time. Caruso comes in second; Pavarotti, third. The BBC reasons that Domingo is the rarest creature of his art form, being "a tenor who uses his voice in re-creating a great art form."

As an Angeleno, my only argument is with the "re." In this town, Domingo created opera. He had help, but without him we wouldn't be where we are today. In the four decades since he first appeared on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage, Domingo -- as great singer, administrator, fundraiser, conductor, visionary, society magnate, celebrity draw -- is Los Angeles opera, to say nothing of Los Angeles Opera. He has also, I'm told, found time to have something of a career elsewhere.

Friday night, L.A. Opera put on a gala to celebrate the 40th anniversary since he sang the title role in Alberto Ginastera's "Don Rodrigo" with the New York City Opera in the Pavilion. Was it a love fest? Do you really need to ask?

"Don Rodrigo" launched Domingo's international career at the opera's U.S. premiere in New York in 1966. For his Los Angeles debut the following year, he repeated the role, which helped launch an annual residency by New York City Opera at the Music Center.

Domingo returned regularly to L.A. as his star rose. In 1984, he starred in a new production of Puccini's "Turandot," which Royal Opera of Covent Garden mounted in the Pavilion as part of the Olympic Arts Festival in 1984. That festival finally motivated the Music Center to form an opera company with Domingo as artistic consultant.

Music Center Opera, as it was first called, opened its doors in 1986 with Verdi's "Otello," the greatest role of "the greatest tenor of all time." Thanks to Domingo, L.A. Opera started at the top. And he has performed with the company every year since.

Prices for Friday night's fundraising gala reached the stratospheric range. A red carpet was rolled out for Hollywood stars. The stage was wreathed in flowers. The auditorium was bathed is harsh lights all evening for the pleasure of video cameras.

Still, expense was spared. If expense hadn't been spared, of course, critics could have accused a tenor who helped found a company he runs of self-aggrandizement. It was, I fear, a lose/lose situation.

The evening was the kind of thing that could be thrown together quickly and without much trouble by busy artists. A large orchestra, led by music director James Conlon, was arrayed on stage. Soprano Patricia Racette shared a program made up mostly of operatic favorites. No notes on the music or texts of what was sung were offered in the glossy tribute program book.

He may need more time to warm up than he once did, but Domingo, who turned 67 in January, still has more voice than would seem reasonable at his age. He sounded a bit dry when he opened with "O, souverain," from Massenet's "Le Cid," but vocal oil slowly smoothed things out in arias from Cilea's "L'Arlesiana," Wagner's "Die Walkure," Tchaikovsky's "Queen of Spades" and Torroba's "Maravilla."

At the extremes, when singing loud or soft, Domingo makes the years fall away. But one notices the effort of making transitions in between. Even so, the passion is still there. The connection with a crowd is always special.

Racette helped fill time with arias from Boito's "Mefistofele" and Puccini's "Tosca" and Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin." In the "Otello" duet and "Tonight" from Bernstein's "West Side Story," she and Domingo didn't show much chemistry, but memories of Domingo's "Otello" were enough to draw a goose bump or two.

The pop stuff worked. Using a microphone, Racette gave an exquisite if not quite heart-rending rendition of "Losing My Mind" from Sondheim's "Follies." Domingo brought the house down with "Granada," an encore. A cute ending of another encore, "La ci darem la mano," the duet from Mozart's "Don Giovanni," occurred when Conlon walked off with the soprano, leaving Domingo to conduct the final chords. Singing the Don may also have been a preview of the next phase in Domingo's career: He has spoken of returning to his roots as a baritone.

Five years ago, the White House told the L.A. Philharmonic that it couldn't supply the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall with a presidential letter of congratulations because the event was a fundraiser. Page 10 of the program book for Friday's L.A. Opera fund-raiser reproduced a letter on White House stationary congratulating Domingo on his anniversary. Is the tenor a law unto himself? Do you need to ask?

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mark.swed@latimes.com

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