Opera Now’s pick of Plácido Domingo recordings3:28, 22nd January 2021
If you are not waving but drowning in the choice of Domingo recordings, here is something to commence with – a list of 10 ideas. Our choices are not necessarily the best 10; that would be an impossible, overly subjective task. These ideas provide a springboard to sampling the sheer diversity of the tenor’s six-decade recording career. If you just want to dip a toe, or are unsure of where your tastes lie, there are endless compilation albums, many at low cost. You will soon work out what appeals to you, and can investigate further.
Il Trovatore Verdi
If Caruso famously remarked that Trovatore requires ‘the four greatest singers in the world” it gets that performance here. Domingo is joined by Leontyne Price, Fiorenza Cossotto and Sherrill Milnes, all in their considerable youthful prime. Throw in Zubin Mehta’s hell-for-leather conducting and it certainly packs a punch. It actually verges upon excess, but Trovatore is short and brutal – we’re knocking back a juicy red wine here, not sipping an elegant dry white. Domingo has both the plangency and thrust for Manrico, though the famous interpolation at the end of Di quella pira already reveals that he is not a natural ‘Top C tenor’.
Riccardo Muti brings a rare refinement to Verdi’s sound world in this recording, often criticised as evidence of studio engineering over performance. We will never know who twiddled what , so we might as well relish what we have, which is Domingo on top form as Radamès opposite Monsterrat Caballé’s luscious Aida, complete with an ethereal top C in her Nile aria. Their voices blend wonderfully. Cossotto reappears and munches her way through the imaginary scenery as Amneris. Domingo alternates between martial and dreamy, it’s a rare skill.
Andrea Chénier Giordano
Any tenor sufficiently clarion to trumpet their way to the guillotine will jump at the chance to sing Chénier, with a crowd-pleasing aria in each of its four acts and revolutionary drama galore. It’s a gift of a role and Domingo duly accepts it in one of his best recordings. If you enjoy this, then also then the 1977 Otello and Adriana Lecouvreur with the same dream team of Domingo, Renata Scotto and Sherrill Milnes, with James Levine conducting, make for insightful interpretations that are still in the top handful of recordings for each opera.
La fanciulla del West Puccini
Domingo and Milnes team up yet again, this time with sassy soprano Carol Neblett. This Covent Garden production of Fanciulla helped put the work back on the operatic map – our raffish hero’s heart is melted by Neblett’s strength of personality, she’s quite the gal. Domingo’s baritonal quality is to the fore. Mehta has a field day with Puccini’s orchestration. If you can find the video of the 1982 revival, with the alternative of Silvano Carroli as Jack Rance, the Man you Love to Hate, then grab it: he is excellent, Nello Santi’s conducting is idiomatic and Piero Faggioni’s detailed production is a classic.
Not at first sight a great role for Domingo – surely fellow-superstar Pavarotti has this one stitched up for insouciant charm and a higher-lying voice? But under Carlo Maria Giulini’s detailed and almost sober conducting, Domingo’s Duke comes across as a more faceted and conflicted character than usual. It is a good example of a singer being encouraged and sufficiently interested to rethink and develop a role they could probably sing in their sleep. Piero Cappuccilli’s classic Rigoletto is caught to great advantage, and, like Domingo, Ileana Cotrubaş makes more of her role than most – her Gilda is a resolute young woman, not a milksop: it makes for a fascinating combination.
Les contes d’Hoffmann Offenbach
This is traditional opera at its finest. The filmed staging is directed with panache by John Schlesinger at Covent Garden, with gorgeous designs by Maria Bjornson. Domingo sweeps through the opera in stylish voice here and acts his way with subtlety in depicting the hapless Hoffmann’s love life. George Prêtre’s conducting is excellent and the cast is top notch for its day: Cotrubaş joins Domingo again as a febrile Antonia, Luciana Serra is a sparkling Olympia and Agnes Baltsa a dangerous Giulietta, alluring in her abundance of cerise feathers. Fun touches abound; I love the way the lighting reflects Hoffmann’s rose-tinted spectacles as he gazes adoringly at the doll. There is a real sense of occasion to the whole event.
It is slightly perverse to choose this filmed version of one of Domingo’s greatest roles: the sound is boxy for a start, Justino Diaz is a blustery Iago, and there is the issue of blackface to deal with. But it does show him in action in a lavish and well thought-through cinema film from a major Hollywood studio, directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Domingo is joined by one of his regular partners as Desdemona, Katia Ricciarelli, and there is good tension between them under Lorin Maazel’s baton. Domingo also filmed the role opposite Kiri Te Kanawa, Renée Fleming and Barbara Frittoli, so if you prefer one of those pairings, or would rather watch an onstage production, they are worth seeking out. (Completists, note that there are some unusual snips to the score, and Desdemonda’s Willow Song is cut in the film, but not on the CD soundtrack.)
El gato montés Penella
Is it an opera? Is it a zarzuela? It is often classed as the latter, but as it has no spoken dialogue it is probably best defined as an opera in the zarzuela style. It is a work close to Domingo’s heart, having sung the tenor role in Mexico as a teenager, when he was generally performing as a baritone. He repeats the role in this recording, and has a whale of a time, alongside the cream of hispanophone singers: Teresa Berganza, Veronica Villaroel and a particularly exciting Juan Pons. It is hardly a subtle work but has great brio, not least the famous Pasodoble (you’ll know it when you hear it).
A great idea that works: a film of Tosca shot in Puccini’s allotted locations in and around Rome, in real time over one day and night. A youthful, fresh-voiced Domingo had already starred on film as Cavaradossi in 1976 opposite Raina Kabaivanska, a classic Tosca – an on-location version by Gianfranco de Bosio that still stands the test of time. In the 1992 film, he is partnered by Catherine Malfitano, no slouch when it comes to singing and acting up a storm. Ruggero Raimondi is a persuasive and elegant Scarpia, if a little woolly of voice by this stage of his career. With Zubin Mehta conducting, the whole enterprise is extremely polished, and has the added tension of a live event where everyone is on a tightrope – fortunately everything goes to plan, and one of Domingo’s staple roles is showcased to great effect. Stick to one of the films rather than the recordings with Leontyne Price, Birgit Nilsson or Mirella Freni – all great voices but not natural Toscas.
Tristan und Isolde Wagner
Warner (EMI) Classics
Domingo’s forays into Wagner provided some controversy – beauty of tone and finesse of phrase against imperfect German and what some people consider an over-Italianate style. But if you like to hear your Wagner sung and not barked there are many pleasures. This Tristan is interesting as Antonio Pappano’s conducting showcases a tenor near the end of his Wagnerian prime – Domingo – against a great soprano near the start of hers – Nina Stemme. They make a surprisingly good combination, both musically scrupulous and dramatically attuned. You will find more fiery interpretations of Tristan elsewhere, but it is an interesting and worthy addition to the catalogue and an opportunity to hear Domingo sing a role he never essayed onstage. If you enjoy his Wagner, why not seek out Lohengrin under Solti or his Tannhäuser under Sinopoli.