A Night at the Opera? Plácido Domingo Dresses Down

Hearing Plácido Domingo in his Carnegie Hall recital on a recent Sunday afternoon offered a disconcerting lesson in one of the trickier things about the art of classical music performance-the challenge of self-exposure. Mr. Domingo has been the most visible-and commanding-singer of our time. But until now, we have heard him only in costume as the reigning dramatic tenor at the Met, where he has sung nearly 400 performances since 1968. On this occasion, Mr. Domingo, unlikely as it seems, was making his New York debut as a recitalist. For the first time, he was appearing before us dressed only as himself.

Although he had reportedly been suffering from a cold (which may have accounted for the discreet presence of Evian bottles on stage), Mr. Domingo arrived unusually well fortified. The hall was packed with adoring fans whose number had to be accommodated by extra stage seats. His accompanist was the formidable conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, who wears an Olympian air of self-assurance the way Michael Jordan wears Nikes.

Dressed in an elegant gray suit and vest, Mr. Domingo strode on stage with the seigneurial grace of a revered Spanish senator. Never one to stint on challenges (his staggering repertoire embraces 116 roles, from Mozart to Ginastera), he had put together a program that avoided anything resembling a hit aria or crowd-pleaser (imagine a Pavarotti recital without “Nessun dorma.”) Moreover, the songs he chose were, for the most part, strenuously introspective-which is not the first adjective that comes to mind for a voice that has not been especially notable for its subtleties of color or intimacy. And, as he launched into the opening set of songs-two bel canto rarities by Donizetti-it was clear that at 59, he still owns an instrument that shows no diminishment of strength or malleability after 40 years of service to the most self-punishing schedule on the international opera scene.

But there was telltale evidence of considerable insecurity, which had the effect of turning the great tenor into a Samson prematurely shorn of hair. Throughout a courageously aria-free program that ranged from the Donizetti to four little-known songs by Verdi, seven extremely demanding songs by Liszt, three bonbons by the turn-of-the-19th-century charmer Paolo Tosti, and an assortment of picturesque songs by Mr. Domingo’s countryman, Federico Moreno Torroba, the singer’s eyes-which he uses so tellingly on the opera stage-were riveted on a music stand that had been placed between him and us like a “No Trespassing” sign. Only when the audience cheered him into tour encores-three of them from the world of his childhood, the Spanish popular entertainment called zarzuela -did he finally give us the benefit of his whole personality, sending the warmth of his gaze out into hall, along with his clarion sound.

For pure vocal artistry there was much that astonished-Mr. Domingo’s ability to shade his trademark, near-to-bursting intensity into an almost whispery sotto voce; the tensile firmness of line in his melismatic singing of a word like ” desio ” (desire); the spaciousness of his breathing; and of course, his ability-still unmatched among today’s tenors-to deliver one of those immense high notes that hang suspended in the air without losing any of their visceral meatiness.

At all times, he was blessed with the companionship of Mr. Barenboim, who, besides giving Mr. Domingo many pats on the back as they entered and left the stage, offered a master class in the subtle art of accompaniment that was sometimes more enthralling than the singing. (The pianist also gave the singer several rest periods by playing two solo pieces-Liszt’s Concert Paraphrase on Rigoletto , and Albeniz’s Almeria, from Iberia , Book II-with terrific bravado.)

But on the recital stage, sheer voice-no matter how brilliantly produced-is not enough. Watching this superb artist as he stayed imprisoned in the curve of the piano, right hand clutching the half-raised lid, I thought back to the first song recital I ever heard-a concert by Benjamino Gigli during his farewell tour of the United States in 1955. The legendary Italian tenor was then in his 60′s and well past his vocal prime. But he came right up to the lip of the stage, unsupported by music stand or piano, and didn’t so much sing as speak a program of songs and arias, using his hands, his face, his eyes, his lifetime of vocal wisdom and, most important, the powers of his memory to achieve the goal that all the great recitalists, from Maggie Teyte to Edith Piaf to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to Frank Sinatra, have strived for-the experience of taking us into the heart of themselves.

As Mr. Domingo nears the end of what may be the longest-running career of self-renewal in the history of opera I can only urge him to keep going, uncostumed. But first, get rid of that damn music stand.