On Tuesday night, the Metropolitan Opera presented Simon Boccanegra, the opera by Verdi. In the pit was James Levine, the company’s music director.
Earlier this season, I said that I did not want my reviews of Levine to become a medical watch. The conductor has dealt with tremendous physical problems in recent years. I can be like a nervous mother, checking in on him: “How is he?” But, again, I’m loath for my reviews to become medical reports.
I have heard Levine conduct Boccanegra many times. I know his Boccanegra almost as well as he does (and a Levine Boccanegra, truthfully, is Verdi’s). On Tuesday night, he did not have the usual intensity, or the usual precision. But he was fine, just fine. I think his instincts kick in, no matter what his general health is. The contours of the opera were there. It was a Levine-like, Verdi-like Boccanegra.
And, frankly, I’d rather hear an ailing Levine conduct this opera—or most any piece—than a robust someone else.
Let me provide a detail, a favorable one: The music that anticipates the abduction of Amelia was nimble, peppery, and catching. Not just any conductor, or just any orchestra, can pull this off.
The great, historic tenor Plácido Domingo was once Gabriele Adorno in this opera. That is the tenor role. Lately, he has been Simon Boccanegra. That is the baritone role. He was there on Tuesday night, along with another veteran, the great bass Ferruccio Furlanetto, who was in his customary role of Fiesco.
In the Prologue, Domingo had little voice. He was doing more than his usual swooning around, vocally. His Spanish accent was more pronounced than ever. Furlanetto had little voice, too. Levine made no apparent effort to adjust the orchestra, and I could hardly hear Furlanetto.
Sure, it was nice to see these two legends, Domingo and Furlanetto. Levine is a third legend. But did we really need Old-Timers’ Night? An alumni association? A fantasy baseball camp? Shouldn’t Domingo and Furlanetto give way to younger, more capable singers, and enjoy the rest of their lives giving master classes, or lounging by the sea?
Then it was time to hear the soprano singing Amelia. This was Lianna Haroutounian, from Armenia. In her aria “Come in quest’ora bruna,” she showed some nice, mezzo-y low notes. But the aria on the whole was undistinguished, at best. I thought, “Why did the Met cast her? Presumably the company can cast anybody. Why her?”
A voice is heard offstage. Amelia sings, “There is his voice! At last!” She is referring to her lover, Adorno. And, yes, at last there was a voice: that of Joseph Calleja, the Maltese tenor. At last there was beauty and volume. Out of Calleja came easy, beautiful, strong singing. He belongs to that category sometimes known as “lyric-heroic.”
The Met, along with the rest of the opera world, is lucky to have Calleja, as well as Vittorio Grigolo, the Italian. This gives us a nice reserve of tenorial beauty.
It occurred to me, “Does Domingo, in the course of Boccanegra, ever feel like singing a few of Adorno’s lines? Just for old times’ sake? What must it be like to stand there hearing someone else sing your longtime part?”
I have no doubt that Domingo could pull off some of Adorno’s lines. Plenty of them. Domingo’s high notes, as Boccanegra, don’t sound like high notes. They sound more like a tenor’s middle-ish notes.
Between Amelia and Boccanegra, there is a recognition duet, if you will. And between Haroutounian and Domingo, it was touching. Verdi has a way with fathers, doesn’t he?
It took Haroutounian a while to warm up, but warm up she did. And one could see why the Met hired her. She has an interesting dark soprano, solid technique, and unforced power. Incidentally, it all comes out of what seems, from the seats, an itty-bitty body.
In Act II, Adorno has to shout a bit, and Calleja proved himself lousy at this. He was better off singing songfully. The American baritone Brian Mulligan was Paolo, and he showed a beautiful voice. A high G was gorgeous. (And baritonal!) Furlanetto earned his pay, showing that he is, indeed, Furlanetto.
And Domingo? Something happened, ladies and gentlemen. He warmed up. His instincts kicked in: vocal, musical, and theatrical. He was commanding, sovereign, moving. Overwhelming.
What is he, seventy-five now? At least? Has there been anything else like it in the history of opera? Magda Olivero?
I could scarcely believe what I was seeing and hearing from Domingo. But I should have. I had no right to be surprised. And I wasn’t really. I really wasn’t. Once, years ago, James Levine was conducting a Met rehearsal. Domingo did something particularly impressive. Levine said to him, “They don’t call you ‘Plácido Domingo’ for nothin’.”
No, they don’t.
Yesterday, I wrote that Sondra Radvanovsky’s Elizabeth, in Roberto Devereux, was simply one of the greatest things I had ever witnessed in an opera house, or elsewhere. The night after I heard that Radvanovsky performance, I heard this Domingo one. Not bad. Not a bad week.