Leoncavallo: La Nuit de mai

Placido Domingo; Lang Lang; Teatro Comunale/Alberto Veronesi (Deutsche Grammophon 477 6633)

11 May 2010 3 stars

La nuit de mai

Tenor and baritone, conductor and artistic director, Wagnerian and Handelian: there's apparently nothing Plàcido Domingo can't do. This year he's singing Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, a baritone role, as well as Bajazet in Handel's Tamerlano, his first part in a Baroque opera. His Operalia competition has just taken place in Milan and he returns to the BBC Proms in July. He sings Siegmund in Die Walkure for the Los Angeles Opera in June, as well as a concert in Russia. He's also conducting Thomas's Hamlet for the Washington Opera, of which he's General Director.

In the meantime, we have a number of new Domingo recordings to enjoy, of which this is the second in a series of three that the legendary tenor is bringing out this season on Deutsche Grammophon with the Italian conductor Alberto Veronesi (the first was Puccini Rediscovered). Veronesi is a specialist in the music of Ruggiero Leoncavallo (1857-1919), best-known for writing the ever-popular Pagliacci, and this new disc brings together the symphonic poem La Nuit de mai with five songs for voice and piano, plus two solo piano pieces. The pianist is Lang Lang, no less, in his first-ever studio recording as a piano accompanist, and with the orchestra of the Teatro Comunale of Bologna completing the line-up, one has to admire the money and effort that DG has lavished on the recording.  

Was their journey really necessary, though? I think it depends on your point of view. There's no doubt that the twelve-movement La Nuit de mai is second-division stuff, with typical overblown verismo-style orchestration, heavily-stacked harmonies and a trite text. As much as one can appreciate that Leoncavallo was sincerely inspired by Alfred de Musset's poem, the way the composer treats the dialogue between the Poet and the Muse – with the orchestra taking the place of the latter and the tenor playing the former – just seems a little trite here. Lines such as 'How dark it is in the valley!' and 'Is someone knocking at my door?' don't exactly set the heart beating faster, and as much as one is intrigued by Leoncavallo's grappling with the post-Wagnerian musical aesthetic, it's hard not to wish for a little classicism to rein in the excesses of the piece.

Having said all of that, it's clear that the motivation behind the disc is the great tenor, and that's fair enough: after all these years, it's not as if there's much left for him to record that he hasn't done before. This is a manageable piece for him, and although his voice does sound older and slightly strained at times, there's no denying that he still has an incredible, expressive, magisterial instrument. His artistry brings much to the score, lending it a nobility and sincerity that it might otherwise lack. In particular, he rises to the inner torture of the final movement, 'Ô Muse! spectre insatiable', and overall I found that by regarding the project as upmarket easy listening, there was much to enjoy. That's also due in no small part to the impeccable conducting of Veronesi, who must be without superior in this repertoire: he truly brings out every nuance and colour from the text, which seems to blend elements of French impressionism, Germanic instrumental effects and Italian lyricism. The sensuousness of the piece is something that many will enjoy, and it's surprising that it's lain unplayed for so long.

I was less impressed by the remainder of the disc, however. The five songs suffer from a lack of communion between Domingo and Lang Lang, who really does bang his way insensitively through the poetical 'Aprile!', for instance. Here, too, the size of Domingo's instrument does not lend itself well to the Lied genre (something he's not often sung in the past). The two solo pieces – 'Barcarola veneziana' and 'Valse mignonne' – are also so inconsequential as to present something of an anticlimax to the rest of the CD. But on the whole, DG are to be praised for underwriting such an ambitious project, which continues with a new release next month of Leoncavallo's opera I Medici – the first part of an uncompleted trilogy – again with Domingo and Veronesi.

By Dominic McHugh


Placido DomingoRelated articles:

Review: Domingo in Boccanegra at the Met
Review: Domingo in Tamerlano in Washington DC
Opera DVD Review: Domingo in Stiffelio at the Met
Opera Review: Domingon in Boccanegra at La Scala