Arts & Culture » Music

Stirring concerts & the 'King of Opera'

by Philip Campbell

Placido Domingo, the "King of Opera." Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Placido Domingo, the "King of Opera." Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera  

Symphony and Opera lovers have been playing a game of performance ping-pong in San Francisco lately, bouncing between Davies Symphony Hall and the War Memorial Opera House. A parade of guest artists and conductors at DSH, surrounded by Dia de los Muertes decorations, has kept the south side of Grove Street jumping, while the SFO has engaged audiences with ongoing fall repertory and a memorable special event.

Most recently Cristian Macelaru, Chief Conductor Designate of the WDR Symphony Orchestra beginning in the 2019-20 season, made his SFS debut with violinist Ray Chen, in a concert largely dedicated to orchestral summations of music from two operas. Richard Strauss' gloriously raucous Suite from "Der Rosenkavalier" ended an evening that included the world premiere of American composer Kevin Puts' "Silent Night Elegy."

Drawn from his 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning debut opera "Silent Night," which depicts the Christmas Eve ceasefire during the First World War, the "Elegy" is a vivid synopsis of events surrounding the historical truce. A haunting introduction of the opera's thematic material leads to the three armies' battle songs, an agonizing battle sequence, a scene of burying the dead, and a breathtakingly tender close.

Puts was on hand to enjoy the warm response. Another American composer, Jake Heggie, was in the audience to join in the ovation. Heggie's own Christmas Eve opera "It's a Wonderful Life" receives its West Coast premiere in nine performances at the SFO starting Nov. 17. Listeners who left after Ray Chen's rendition of Lalo's "Symphonie espagnole" missed the exciting second half, but they were primarily there for Chen's crisply energetic performance. His encore, the Prelude from Ysaye's Sonata No. 2 ("Obsession"), was also brilliant.

DSH was host the prior week to the return of Pablo Heras-Casado, leading a program of Spanish-themed works by French composers. The pleasant tour, which included some Debussy bookended by Ravel, was ironically most notable for the inclusion of Bartok's rarely performed Piano Concerto No. 3. The only things Spanish about that stirring performance were the conductor (Granada) and soloist, Javier Perianes (Nerva). They made the Concerto fit the bill with a combination of pianistic virtuosity and sympathetic orchestral support.

Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado. Photo: Fernando Sancho  

There was another Spaniard in attendance. Placido Domingo (Madrid) kept a low profile from his loge seat, but once his presence was known, audience members (even DSH staff) couldn't help sneaking some starstruck looks.

Domingo was in town for his highly anticipated SFO matinee concert the following Sunday. Tickets for the one-performance-only visit with the "King of Opera" were made available to Full Series subscribers originally, and limited to two per household. The event sold faster than a rock concert, and proved the shrewdness (and gratitude) of SFO's marketing department.

Domingo has also shown remarkable intelligence in a career that has spanned decades and seen him change from a clarion tenor to a burnished baritone. Other highlights include 12 Grammy Awards, 150 roles in repertoire, over 500 conducting assignments, and 15 years as General Director of Los Angeles Opera.

Remember when opera stars used to be part of pop culture? They used to appear on late-night talk shows and even made personal appearances. Perhaps not, but surely you remember "The Three Tenors" — José Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti — and their one-night-only show at Los Angeles' Dodger Stadium in July 1994. The broadcast of that concert had an estimated 1,300,000 viewers. All three tenors ruled the world of opera for years, and wonderfully, Domingo is unlikely to abdicate any time soon.

The recent matinee found the War Memorial packed to the ceiling, including a legion of loyal standees. The atmosphere was crackling with anticipation, and when Domingo made his entrance during the first "set" (Verdi's "La Traviata," Act II, Scene 1) wearing a rakishly slanted fedora, the crowd simply went wild.

The concert was divided into two satisfying parts, and Domingo also brought two other singers onstage. Young Mexican tenor Arturo Chacon-Cruz and charming Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez joined him, portraying roles in scenes from "La Traviata" and Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra (Act II, Scene 2, 3 & 4). On the handsome set from SFO's current production of "Tosca," the attractive and talented younger singers proved perfect foils for Domingo. Each had opportunities to thrill the crowd with solo arias and duets of their own.

Everyone held their breath for each of the big star's vocals. He immediately proved his continued stamina and sustained power. No hints of troubling vibrato or blurry pitch to report. While he may be in his late 70s, he still sings with the power of a man half his age.

The second half was mostly dedicated to a potpourri of numbers from Domingo's beloved Spanish zarzuelas. The fizzy blend of operetta with telenovela plots makes for delightful listening, and obviously, it's a lot of fun to sing, too.

In solos, duets, or finally, in an-all-stops-out trio, Domingo, Martinez, and Chacon-Cruz had us eating out of their hands. After a generous string of encores, the show ended with "Besame mucho," replete with disco lighting! Opera is also show business, and "The King" reminded us of how much fun it can be.


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