When the late Luciano Pavarotti tried to relive his days of youthful glory at the Metropolitan Opera by reprising the role that made him famous, the result was an embarrassment that tarnished his reputation.
No such calamity befell his one-time tenor rival Placido Domingo when on Friday night at age 68 he took on the role of his house debut back in 1968 — Maurizio, the dashing military man who fuels a fatal love triangle in Francesco Cilea's "Adriana Lecouvreur."
The fact that Domingo is still performing at all after 40 seasons is amazing. If it can't be said that his attempt to turn back the clock was an unqualified success, at least it was an honorable effort with considerable rewards.
The role of Maurizio is by no means the toughest in the Italian repertory. Cilea gives his hero a couple of fairly brief arias and several duets, and the highest note he has to sing is B natural below high C. Even that has been beyond Domingo's comfort zone for several years, as his voice has darkened and taken on an increasingly baritonal sound. So some passages were transposed downward to accommodate the star — not an uncommon practice even for singers far younger.
Domingo still moves and acts with enviable grace for a performer old enough to be his character's grandfather. But it does stretch credulity to picture him as a romantic idol for whom two glamorous women are willing to battle to the death.
Vocally, he took awhile to warm up, and he struggled with his Act 3 song about his military exploits. What made it all worthwhile were those moments, especially in the final act, when that familiar Domingo sound rang out in the cavernous Met auditorium. At its best, it's still a thrilling voice — ardent and muscular, supported by a rock-solid technique that has kept him going all these years while so many promising younger tenors have come and gone from the scene.
Domingo hadn't sung a role from the standard Italian repertory at the Met since 2002, when he appeared in Giordano's "Andrea Chenier." Instead he has been venturing into roles that better match his remaining strengths — such as Siegmund in Wagner's "Die Walkuere," which he will sing again at the house this spring. Next season he's going even farther afield, scheduling the title role in Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra," which is actually written for a baritone.
It's only by chance that he is singing in "Adriana" at all. Originally he had intended to conduct the current revival, but he agreed to jump from the podium to the stage after the scheduled tenor, Marcelo Alvarez, switched to an upcoming new production of Verdi's "Il Trovatore."
Pavarotti's ill-fated effort to wish the years away occurred in 1995, when he starred in a revival of Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment," best known for its tenor aria with nine high Cs. Back in 1971, he had punched each one out with brilliant abandon, but 24 years later he had trouble hitting the top notes squarely. Worse, it turned out he had transposed the aria down a half-tone, making a mockery of the notion that he was still King of the High Cs.
"Adriana Lecouvreur," based loosely on the life of an 18th century French actress, is rarely performed these days except when a leading lady is looking for a vehicle to display her vocal and histrionic talents. Soprano Maria Guleghina did better at the emoting than the singing, with a rough, unsteady tone often marring her vocal outbursts. She did manage some nice phrasing when she was able to scale back her large voice, but other times was outright flat. As the Princess of Bouillon, mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina won the vocal competition hands-down, with a no-holds-barred vocal ferocity well-suited to a character who ultimately murders her rival by sending her a bouquet of poisoned violets.
Marco Armiliato conducted with an appreciation for Cilea's delicate and inventive orchestrations. The lavish production, dating from 1963, holds up well enough to support the melodramatic, often nonsensical, goings-on.
Domingo is scheduled to sing five more performances through the end of the month.