by ZACHARY WOOLFE
THE NEW YORK TIMES
NYT Critic’s Pick
Plácido Domingo is, depending on the source you consult, on one or the other side of 80. Let that sink in.
And now let this: On Thursday he sang, for the first time, the father of the title character in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” at the Metropolitan Opera. He says that Miller is the 149th new role of his career.
Placido Domiingo ✔@PlacidoDomingo
Tonight God willing I’ll be making my 149th career role debut on the stage of @MetOpera as Miller in Giuseppe Verdi’s masterpiece “Luisa Miller “ with amazing colleagues @sonyayoncheva Piotr Beczala, Olesya Petrova, Alexander Vinogradov, Dmitry Belosselskiy.
How did we get to this astonishing spectacle? Around the year 2000, it was assumed that Mr. Domingo, one of the great tenors of the 20th century, would do what generations of opera singers had done before him. Seemingly at the tail end of a brilliant 40-year career, he would recede with dignity.
We thought that Mr. Domingo, then a bit over 60, would do concerts. He’d conduct. He’d run opera companies and found young singer competitions. He’d keep busy but he’d gradually retire.
Was it ego? A philanthropic impulse toward the struggling opera companies he knew he could help at the box office? Indomitable curiosity? A feeling he still had something to say on stage?
Whatever the combination of all the above, Mr. Domingo didn’t stop. Having naturally lost flexibility in his high notes, and no longer able to convincingly portray boyish lovers, he moved into the baritone repertory, specifically the brooding patriarchs of Verdi: Simon Boccanegra, Nabucco, Rigoletto, Germont in “La Traviata.”
And now, at the Met through April 21, Miller in the underrated “Luisa Miller,” a relative rarity but passionate and full of arresting experiments in structure and sonority, a gateway to Verdi’s breakthrough works of the early 1850s (“Rigoletto,” “Il Trovatore,” “Traviata”). The Met hasn’t put on “Luisa” in over a decade — and not this excitingly since well before that.
What Mr. Domingo is doing is not atypical. It’s unprecedented in opera history. For him to be even credibly appearing in leading parts on the world’s major stages, and adding new ones each year, is as if Roger Federer, today already an ancient champion at 36, were still winning Wimbledon a decade from now.
Mr. Domingo’s baritonal period hasn’t been conflict-free; he’s been dogged by polite suggestions and outright calls to give it all up. But he has turned out not to be experimenting or dabbling. It’s been over 10 years. And there remain things to be skeptical about.
Large swaths of his voice are still uncannily preserved, but the low part crucial to a baritone’s range tends to grow vague for him. And in fast music, that part in particular turns blustery and cloudy, making Mr. Domingo sound awkward in, for example, Miller’s big cabaletta, “Ah! fu giusto,” which should be an early showstopper.
At the start of the finale to the first act, Miller — a sturdy retired soldier whose country-girl daughter tragically seeks to marry above her station — indignantly says that an innocent like Luisa shouldn’t have to bow before a powerful man, but only before God. The steadiness and magnetism of this line are key to establishing the opera’s stakes — so those stakes suffer a bit when Miller delivers it, as Mr. Domingo did, without evenness or glamour.
But on Thursday, he eventually warmed and settled, his voice taking on increased presence if not ideally hale glow. “Luisa Miller” plays on one of Verdi’s favorite themes: the conflict between romantic and filial love — or, depending on how you look at it, between romantic love and filial obsession.
Mr. Domingo brings out a father’s concern and pain more than his obsession. He is a straightforward singer, as he always has been, with straightforward feelings. His relationship with Luisa doesn’t have much complexity, but it has earnestness and poignancy.
His voice sounds healthy; he moves with fluency. If he’ll never be a true Verdi baritone, and always an aging tenor in baritone’s clothing, it is still a display not to be missed: someone of Mr. Domingo’s stage of life taking on a new Verdi role at a great opera house and doing himself no small degree of honor with it. You almost don’t believe your eyes or ears.
That this implausible achievement isn’t this revival’s main attraction speaks to the quality of the performance. Sonya Yoncheva, also new to her role, seems more comfortable as Luisa than she did as Tosca at the Met this winter. The clear, smoothly slicing quality of her soprano makes special impact in this opera, in which Luisa stands out in a field of dark male voices.
Ms. Yoncheva has imagined the character as less innocent than spunky and sensual. When her lover, Rodolfo, enters to kill her in the final act — she’s trapped in a lie of betrayal that she thinks will save her father — she seems unsurprised, as if she’d expected him to come: There is always a sense of fatalism, of death calmly awaited, in Ms. Yoncheva’s portrayals.
Piotr Beczala, in yet another role debut, gave the rash Rodolfo his trademark poise and elegance. There’s little traditional Italian-tenor wildness in Mr. Beczala (for that, check out Vittorio Grigolo, at the Met in “Lucia di Lammermoor”) but he brings ample heat as the plot thickens.
The bass Alexander Vingradov made a fine Met debut as Count Walter, Rodolfo’s father, sonorously and suavely balancing this intriguing character’s combination of sympathy and violence. (Think Claudius in “Hamlet.”) In one of Verdi’s ingenious inventions, he combined beautifully in a rare bass-bass duet with Dmitry Belosselskiy, imposingly oily as the malevolent Wurm.
The warm-toned mezzo-soprano Olesya Petrova (as Federica, the noblewoman who loves Rodolfo) meets her role’s most important requirement: She strides commandingly down the gigantic staircase of Santo Loquasto’s sturdily old-fashioned set. Rihab Chaieb sounded fresh and youthful as the village girl Laura.
Leading a spirited performance, the conductor Bertrand de Billy was a replacement for James Levine, fired by the Met last month amid accusations of sexual misconduct. This revival was to have been a special reunion: Mr. Domingo and Mr. Levine’s first collaboration here was “Luisa Miller” in 1971. (Mr. Domingo, back then, sang Rodolfo.)
As it happened, this tenor-improbably-turned-baritone was forced to return to the opera on his own. He did it in memorable style.