I DUE FOSCARI, LICEU, APRIL 30, 2015
Plácido Domingo made a triumphant return to the Liceu for two concert version performances of Verdi’s early and infrequently performed opera I Due Foscari. The audience, already geared up to applaud anything that moved, started up enthusiastically when an unfamiliar woman in a beautiful embroidered jacket strode onto the stage, but fell silent when they saw her serious expression and the microphone in her hand. Geared for the worst, there was a general feeling of relief when she announced that Plácido had bronchitis but would be singing nonetheless, but we should be forewarned if he was a bit subdued.
In the event, it is impossible to judge whether the flattening of his voice was due to temporary discomfort or whether age is at last dimming its extraordinary force. Certainly he began a bit tentatively, but he warmed up quite fast and gave a highly acceptable performance, even if it is no longer the old, exceptional Plácido. In 2009, encouraged by Daniel Barenboim, he moved from his lifelong comfort zone as a tenor (remember The Three Tenors: Pavarotti, Carreras and Domingo, whose visibility on television screens the world over probably drew many new people into the opera fold!) and began to take on baritone roles. Courage and willingness to adapt (and presumably lucky genes) have carried him on into his seventies with a certain diminution of lustre but a still very appealing voice and presence.
Mind you, he was singing to a Liceu audience, and the Liceu habitué’s loyalty knows no bounds. I will never forget my first experience of Liceu passion, when Edita Gruberova (and Juan Diego Florez) sang 'Maria Stuarda' in 2003. At the end, the entire audience, from the fifth floor on down, seemed to pour onto the ground floor and sweep down the aisles of the orchestra to get as close as they could to the stage and roar their approval for a solid 20 minutes during which nobody even considered leaving the opera house and heading home.
There was a somewhat more restrained but nevertheless wildly enthusiastic response to Plácido that crescendoed in the last act and held the audience captive with its roaring cheers at the end. Part of it was highly deserved, but part was definitely longterm devotion and recognition of the valiance of this 74-year-old man who has overcome age and cancer to maintain a very respectable presence on the stage. His choice as the figurehead of the Liceu’s push for corporate financing to repair the facade of the building was well thought-out.
The opera itself is a very pleasant early Verdi work, based on Lord Byron’s epic poem about the tragic choice forced upon the Doge of Venice when his son is accused of murder. The main protagonists on this occasion were Plácido as the aging Doge, tenor Aquiles Marchado (who took over from the previously announced Ramon Vargas) as the wrongly accused son, and the Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska as the loyal, loving and hysterically loud wife. I had the feeling all the way through that Monastyrska was, in her own head, singing in a Wagner opera: she was on a whole other level of force and one that, to my mind, was excessive for this performance. She has a rich and often thrilling voice (and the audience showed its appreciation), but it needed reining in. As a possible explanation, she may not have compensated sufficiently for the fact that a concert performance kept her right on the edge of the stage in front of the audience instead of moving around and needing to project more.
Conductor Massimo Zanetti made an appealing debut at the Liceu and demonstrated rapport with both singers and orchestra.
As for it being a concert performance, I really enjoy this kind of production these days. Shielded from the distraction of extravagent stage work, which has come to be a vehicle for directors’ egos, the voices and the subtle gestures of the performers (or not so subtle in the case of Monastyrska!) amply provide drama and atmosphere. Much as I enjoy most of the Liceu’s full performances (despite grumbles), I think my best memories have been concert performances over the past few years, in which much is left to the imagination of the audience and the music reigns supreme.
Next up, Mozart’s lively Cosi Fan Tutte which opens on May 20th for nine performances and then, on June 16th, the delicious Don Pasquale for ten performances, with the brilliant Marius Kwiecien in the first cast. Now is the time to make sure you have seats.