Friday, November 5, 2010

Domingo at San Francisco Opera

Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac

October 30, 2010

It seems silly to even express an opinion about Placido Domingo. The Spanish tenor long ago earned his place as one of history’s great performers, performing more than 130 roles, becoming a respected conductor and demonstrating a ceaseless thirst for artistic challenges.

Domingo’s latest pursuit is the rehabilitation of Franco Alfano, the poor sap who had to try and write the final scene of Puccini’s Turandot after the composer’s death. Domingo performed the American debut of Alfano’s Cyrano in 2005 at the Met, and recently brought the opera to San Francisco for its debut there.

Alfano’s score certainly reflects some of the directions that Puccini was headed at the end of his life – particularly in through-composing– but the more prominent influence may be Massenet. Alfano’s Cyrano shies away from melody in pursuit of a recitative-like style (referred to as parlando) that reflects the patterns of natural speech.

This drama-friendly approach and the enormity of Rostand’s character make fine dining for Domingo, whose acting skills have rarely been matched. But don’t think the vocals are a cake-walk – Alfano loves the higher reaches, and Domingo, nearing his 70th birthday, shows not the slightest hesitation in delivering those robust spinto top-notes time and again.

With its Roxane, SFO has found a glorious match for Domingo’s power: Spanish soprano Ainhoa Arteta, who brings a strong, creamy tone, as well as generous helpings of wit. The latter showed itself especially in the second act, as Roxane dupes De Guiche (baritone Stephen Powell) into delaying the deployment of her beloved Christian. Arteta also shines in Roxane’s final-scene aria about Christian’s (Cyrano’s) letters, some of the most soaring passages in Alfano’s score.

Brazilian tenor Thiago Arancam gives a sympathetic reading of Christian (whose saving grace is his understanding that he is witless). I also enjoyed baritone Timothy Mix as Cyrano’s aide, Le Bret, and baritone Lester Lynch, who lent a commanding presence to Carbon, the captain of the Guards. Musical theater veteran Martin Rojas-Dietrich was delightfully over-the-top as theater star Montfleury.

The production is even more action-packed than spring’s La Fanciulla del West, a quality insisted upon by Domingo and stage director Petrika Ionesco. (At times, it felt like I went to a swordfight and an opera broke out.) The participants were actual swordfighters, drawn through auditions in Los Angeles and San Francisco, who created wonderfully chaotic battle scenes under fight director Jonathan Rider. For good measure, the company threw in a trio of stagehands rappelling from the flies in Act I.

The sets – designed by Ionesco -  were astounding, particularly Ragueneau’s bakery, which looked like a scene from Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory. A particular techno-geek thrill came from the leaves in the final-act tree, which contained electrodes allowing them to fall on command from a backstage switchboard.

The undercover trio of the balcony scene was as ravishing as one might expect, Domingo delivering Cyrano’s poetry over the ebbs and swells of Alfano’s orchestration. Still, nothing could compare with the heartstopping intensity of the final scene, as Cyrano, dying of a headwound, finally reveals his love for Roxane. The sight of Domingo crawling toward his plumed hat, gasping Cyrano’s last wishes, is just another indelible moment in a career containing thousands.

Through Nov. 12, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. $20-$360, 415/864-3330, Ticket availability extremely limited.

Image: Ainhoa Arteta (Roxane) and Plácido Domingo (Cyrano de Bergerac). Photo by Cory Weaver

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and the author of Operaville, an opera sex novel which will be released in early 2011 with a companion CD by soprano Barbara Divis. Available at


Barbara said...

Thank you very much for this review. I live in new Zealand and so depend very much on firsthand reviews such as these as I don't get the chance to hear Placido in person.

Michael J. Vaughn said...

You're welcome! It's only the second time in 25 years that I've seen him. But I am so blessed to be near the San Francisco Opera.