Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac is opening in a few hours at the War Memorial Opera House, and Plácido Domingo is in town. Busy as he notoriously is – he had just arrived from LA, where he is Neruda in Daniel Catán's Il postino – he couldn't find time for interviews with individual members of Californian press. But, confirming once again their caring and generous attitude towards the journalistic fraternity, the San Francisco Opera staff organized a press reception on the Tuesday before the first night.
General Director David Gockley acted as the host, together with Music Director Nicola Luisotti, Director of Communication John Finck, and the friendly and helpful people from the Communication Department. Domingo, in a grey outfit and light blue scarf around his neck, arrived together with his wife Marta, who sat among the select audience. Despite the presence of a true legend of the operatic world, the atmosphere was cozy and relaxed.
David Gockley introduced Domingo to the audience. He joked about the fact that, when the artist expressed a desire to return to San Francisco, he initially thought he should start planning an arena event. But Domingo had no doubts: he wanted to come for an opera. Alfano's Cyrano immediately seemed the right choice: Domingo had already performed the title at Royal Opera, the Met, and a couple of other houses. Gockley wasn't familiar with the opera, so he went to Milan to see a performance at La Scala:
"That was very, very special," Gockley confessed, "not only as an opera, but also as a wonderful vehicle for Plácido at this stage of his career, where he can be the eloquent poet: he may not have the youthful attractiveness of Christian but he has the experience to play this part in a way that breaks your heart. And the response in Milan was really... something."
Gockley's first question to Domingo dealt precisely with Alfano's now almost forgotten music: "Alfano was one of a group of Italian composers who occupy a black hole in operatic history, and I'm talking about Franchetti, Catalani, Montemezzi, Zandonai, Cilea... who were writing at the same time as Janácek, Berg, Schoenberg. These composers were very chic. What do you think happened to them, and how do you feel that Alfano and Cyrano stand up at this time of history?"
"Well, those were the composers that, sometimes, in those days the critics loved to hate. Even Puccini! Puccini had a difficult time. But I think that these people were great composers. I think of Catalani, who had a superb opera, and Cilea, with which I made my debut at the Metropolitan with Adriana Lecouvreur. They were struggling in a very difficult period, when people were already thinking about the change, as you well say, established by Alban Berg, Schoenberg... and I think it possibly hurt Alfano, the fact that he wrote the ending of Puccini's Turandot. It got a lot of criticism in those days. But Alfano followed the sketcheS of Puccini!" Here Domingo sang the "’Principessa...’" then he continued: "...and that was Puccini! But everybody starts to say: no, we don't like that music, that's not Puccini! Now history says that this was not a good idea to write the end of Turandot. He also composed Risurrezione which is a fantastic opera."
"The idea of Cyrano... somebody gave me a gift of the piano score of Cyrano – very good edition, wonderful red cover. I was in Milano in those days, and I went to Ricordi – I know the people there – and I said 'I'd like to see the original score.' I saw it, it was written in Italian and French, and they gave me a recording with Ramón Vinay, the great Chilean singer who sang it at La Scala in 1948... Vinay was a great singer, he was a great Otello, Tristan, Siegmund... "
"And Iago!" adds somebody from the audience, referring to the fact that Vinay, after his early beginning as a baritone, sang as a tenor for most of his career but then switched to baritone.
"Yes!" Domingo continues, "at the end of his career he was singing baritone! So, I hear the piece, and I am absolutely crazy for it... in those days I had done another piece at the Met which was also very powerful, Sly by Wolf-Ferrari, which my wife Marta staged. So, you see, I always had the itch of looking for new pieces: I did many, many years ago in San Francisco L'africaine [by Meyerbeer], and I did Francesca da Rimini [by Zandonai] at the Met... I've always been looking for pieces for which one thinks 'why are they not done?'"
"So yes, I see the score and I fall in love with it: what a character, Cyrano! This very moment, I'm coming from Los Angeles where I'm doing the part of Neruda [in Il postino], and now Cyrano... two poets. The drama of Rostand is extraordinary, if you've seen any production at the Comédie-Française, or a film of it, you can see that it's really a great piece for the theatre. But Alfano really did wonderful work, because the music is very inspired. He had been fighting with the fact that Wozzeck had been written, and even if Lulu was not out yet, he still had to be atonal... and he wrote some of the most interesting and tough harmonies! And this is because of the character of Cyrano, and because of the time in which he was writing... but he also goes out with unbelievable melodic lines, like the end of the opera. And the balcony scene, you have a sublime music, so melodic... and very much in the style of Debussy. And that's why he decided to do it in French. Alfano was Italian, but the piece sounds more French. So I've done it, and it was a success at the Met, in Covent Garden, in Valencia, at La Scala... but this production was new and done in June 2009 in Paris at the Châtelet. This one was more powerful, and David saw it."
Gockley agreed with Domingo, and he added some comments on the decision to take that particular production to San Francisco: "We were trying to find a way in our limited backstage to adapt the Zambello production that had appeared all over up to that point; and then somebody said: 'you know that they're doing a production at the Châtelet' – and I knew that the Châtelet had little backstage space... they play in a stagione situation so the stage just stays there once it moves in. We went over to see that, and it had a wonderful theatricality. Petrika Ionesco, the Romanian director designer, has brought fantastic animation and art to this particular production and we're thrilled to have it."
Gockley goes on asking about a piece of history of the San Francisco Opera: that night in September 1983 when Domingo had to replace an artist who cancelled – a night that is still talked about.
"First of all, how many seats has the Memorial Opera House?," Domingo asks, to which Gockley replies that it's 3,200.
"You know," the artist continued, "about 25,000 people claimed that they were there! Something very special! So the story was this: I had just finished singing in Madrid, and I had to start my rehearsals for Lohengrin at the Met. I went to have a long period there, because I had to sing in Lohengrin, then Otello, and I was conducting Bohème. I went to say hello to the general director of that time, Anthony Bliss, I was already in the rehearsal room... and as I was leaving, he said: by the way, Terry McEwen has called, he's crazy, he asks if you can go to sing Otello today in San Francisco....it's the opening night and the tenor is sick.' I saw the hour, and I said 'Let me try vocalizing...' and I saw the voice was fine. So I said: 'Let's call Terry: if they have a way to bring me there, I am going!' They sent me a private plane, Mr Getty's plane – I took a helicopter then the private plane. In the end, the only thing that had to be changed was the dinner: rather than after the performance, the dinner took place before. So we started the performance at about 10.15 in the evening... so, I think I did well, but by that stage it didn't matter, because everybody was, you know, very happy! We had a fantastic evening."
There is a question that cannot not be asked: what it is like to sing baritone roles, for a tenor? Gockley asks whether he has to make an adjustment, like darkening the voice, consciously, or whether he just sings in the natural lower voice of Placido Domingo?
"No, I really have to colour differently, and," he adds jokingly, "your director Nicola Luisotti knows very well because he has a wonderful baritone voice also!"
"But I will never be a tenor!," Luisotti adds, to general hilarity.
"Fortunately," Domingo continues, "I did Otello in my career, and there you really have to colour. If you have a white voice, you cannot sing Otello, you can never do 'Dio mi potevi scagliar'", and he sings that line in a powerful tone, and after he repeats it more feebly. "When I sing like a baritone... well, it's a strange story. I loved the part of Simon Boccanegra, and I said 'The last performances, when I'll be retiring, will be Simon Boccanegra!' Barenboim who was in Salzburg at that time, and we really wanted to do it together, but he wasn't free. So he said: you want to do Simone, let's do it in Berlin. Then it came Covent Garden, the Met, Madrid... so I ended doing more than 20 performances. But guess what? It was not my last performance!"
"It happened earlier than I thought, I thought that maybe Simone was going to start now. But I can still sing, and I don't want to retire one day earlier than I can still sing. But also I don't want to be there one day more, if I cannot sing I would like to know it also. So, now I started the Simone and I get tempted by all the baritone roles.... we did Rigoletto in Mantua, the live performance. And, honestly, I very much enjoyed this combination of being able to sing baritone and tenor roles. Of course I don't pretend to be a baritone, because certainly the colour has to be different. In the middle of your voice it's different. When you are singing an E flat as a tenor, or an F, that are notes of passaggio. But when you sing an F as a baritone you really have to sing, and in that moment the orchestra is probably also stronger because, you know, the composer thinks you are a actually baritone! And an F is a high note for the baritone."
"I do enjoy very much, and I love the colour of the baritone. And, as I say, I don't pretend to be a baritone, but I like to do these characters, who are so interesting and that can make an impression. I feel very happy."
"Are there others that you see as the next challenges?" Gockley asked.
"I have some that are already happening. I will sing at the Châtelet and in Valencia in 2012, and it's the Massenet anniversary, so I will sing Athanaël in Thaïs. It's a wonderful part. And also, I have to look for parts that I can do. Athanaël is this monk, you know, he could be any age. Even Cyrano! Cyrano, in reality, is younger, he should be only a few years older than Christian. But because he's a loser, he could be any age!"
As he mentioned the "loser" quality of Cyrano that Domingo was jokingly describing, the audience felt a fit of empathy for Domingo's role, and a sympathetic "Aw, no!" arose.
"Well... OK, you can be a loser when you are young, and a loser when you are old! But you know, to be the one who takes the girlfriend, you have to be young!".
Gockley continued asking Domingo about his free time: "Being not only a singer, a tenor, a baritone, but also a conductor of tremendous repute, a general director of opera companies, and a restaurateur [he owns a restaurant in Manhattan]! How do you find time for downtime, and what do you do to recharge? Or do you recharge by doing what you do all the time?"
"You recharge by the energy, by the results of what you're doing. When you see the public, the director, being happy, when you see that a opera house is sold out... that is energetic. But also, for example, tonight I have to tape a football game because my team, Real Madrid, plays against Milan this morning... and also we watch soap operas on the Spanish channel. I follow these things! And you know, I have been invited by friends to see the Giants. But I cannot dare to go, because if it's cold... I cannot go between the dress rehearsal and the premiere. This is really one of the sacrifices you have to do! Then we get together with our children, grandchildren... this really gives me energy." And one of Domingo's grandchildren is at the conservatoire in San Francisco, studying to be a tenor: "A tenor...we don't know! He's singing, that's a start. I ask people: 'Do you want to be a tenor? Think it over!' It's very difficult, you know, always thinking 'Am I going to reach the high note?' And people always have their own conceptions: every high note you do, they think 'Ah, that's a high C!' But the high Cs are not the only difficult notes! Also Bflat, A! Anything above the pentagram is tough!"
[End of Part 1]
The Q&A with Domingo and the Press will follow in a forthcoming feature story.
Photos (from top to bottom): Gockley, Domingo, Luisotti and Finck at the SFO Press Reception (credits: Marina Romani); Domingo as Cyrano (credits: Cory Weaver); McEwen greets Domingo at the SF Int'l Airport in 1983 (credits: Christ Stewart); Domingo (Credits: EMI/Sheila Rock).
Interview with Nicola Luisotti
Review of Simon Boccanegra with Domingo at the 2010 BBC Proms
Review of Simon Boccanegra with Domingo at Covent Garden
Review of Simon Boccanegra with Domingo at La Scala
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