Domingo's Debut

A Capital Gain
Tim Page
November 11, 1996
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Veronica Villarroel, Placido Domingo and Hao Jiang Tian

Veronica Villarroel, left, Placido Domingo and Hao Jiang Tian did what they could, but couldn't save "Il Guarany" from itself.

The Placido Domingo era at the Washington Opera -- which began Saturday night with a gala performance of A. Carlos Gomes' "Il Guarany" -- promises much for the musical life of our city.

Domingo is the most versatile, intelligent and altogether accomplished operatic tenor now before the public; he is also a sensitive (and increasingly technically confident) conductor. Now he is the artistic director of the Washington Opera and therefore, in theory at least, ultimately responsible for the repertory choices and musical and theatrical standards of a well-funded and enormously ambitious troupe.

Time will tell whether Domingo is as adept behind the scenes as he is before the footlights. For now, one can only note that his presence in our midst has already brought new excitement and heightened international attention to the Washington Opera. The Kennedy Center lobby was filled with music professionals -- singers, managers, record people, artists' representatives -- trading business cards and the latest buzz from the Met, La Scala, Covent Garden and other great opera houses. On Saturday night, within the closely knit world of opera, Washington was the chic, the necessary, place to be.

Until the curtain went up.

When one is presented with such a sumptuous, caloric, carefully trussed turkey as this "Il Guarany," the only thing to do is to carve it up; there may be sillier operas in the repertory but I can't think of any. And when you throw in a production that calls to mind an insect's-eye view of a potted plant (Gomes was into rain forests before rain forests were hip) and dress Domingo up in a bizarre, flame-colored, feathered headdress that makes him look like an acidhead's idea of an Indian-head penny from the front and a plastic sunflower from the back, you have the makings of a camp classic. I've never seen so many people in tuxedos giggling helplessly in the aisles -- usually in the most determinedly "tragic" moments.

The plot is a preposterous melange of improbable love affairs, treacherous betrayals, exotic poisons that can be cured by equally exotic herbal remedies, and so on. The action is set in Brazil, much of it in a castle peopled by early European settlers who are, however, surrounded by bands of hostile "savages." The PC crowd -- those interesting folks who go into froths of indignation over old Tarzan movies -- will hate all this, of course, but even an unreconstructed imperialist might have some difficulties following the logic of the climax, where the father of lovely Cecilia will grudgingly allow Indian chief Pery to rescue his daughter from murderous invaders but only if Pery immediately converts to Christianity. Okay, he says -- and off they go while Daddy dynamites the castle. Nobody in this opera seems to be running on much more than a vestigial brain.

The music is better. It should not be forgotten how deeply and immediately Latin American audiences took to Italian opera; by the turn of the century, the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires was one of the world's most prestigious houses, while the national anthems for El Salvador and Uruguay might have been borrowed from a Donizetti finale. "Il Guarany" received its premiere at La Scala in 1870, the first opera by a Brazilian composer to be so honored. Gomes certainly deserves credit for earnest endeavor (and for some sweet lyricism and a rousing drinking song as well). But the score is almost entirely secondhand -- imagine Bellini without tunes, Rossini without wit, early Verdi without dynamism -- and every act seems longer than the one before.

Werner Herzog's direction was unremarkable, with very few "touches" beyond a dopey puppet show that accompanied a wan and listless coloratura meditation on love, sung by soprano Veronica Villarroel. She is a smart and expert artist, with a sure command of roulades and high notes, despite an imperfect trill and some dicey intonation. To this taste, the voice itself is neither lustrous nor charming, but Villarroel usually makes the most of what she has.

Carlos Alvarez sang the role of Gonzales with precision, conviction and a good, wiry baritone voice. Bass Hao Jiang Tian brought reasonable dignity and intensity to the thankless part of Don Antonio. There was worthy support from Victor Barrett, Daniel Sumegi, Boris Martinovic and William Joyner. John Neschling conducted the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra and Washington Opera Chorus with style and sympathy and he drew enthusiastic and well-disciplined performances from both ensembles.

As for Domingo, the role of Pery is probably a little high for him at this stage in his career, and there were some occasional signs of strain amid what was otherwise a mostly heroic outpouring of sound. Still, Domingo paid his customary close attention not only to the melodies he sang but to words and dramatic context, such as it was.

There are some musicians who are worth listening to in anything they choose to perform (think of the magnificent artistry that elevates John McCormack's recordings of some pretty treacly popular songs). If, way back in 1968, the Metropolitan Opera could revive Cilea's insipid "Adriana Lecouvreur" for the great soprano Renata Tebaldi, then the Washington Opera can certainly revive "Il Guarany" for Placido Domingo -- especially when the star is also the boss. If we never encounter "Il Guarany" again -- a prospect this listener is able to face without undue anguish -- at least we have had the opportunity to evaluate a fully committed production with the opera's most gifted and ardent current advocate in the central role.

Criticism 1997
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