Domingo's new role Singer: Superstar tenor Placido Domingo adds to the long list of parts he has played. This will be BTC his first season as artistic director for the Washington Opera.

November 03, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.

That must be one of the reasons the Washington Opera asked superstar tenor Placido Domingo two years ago to become its artistic director. When he accepted the job, Domingo -- whose first season begins Saturday at the Kennedy Center with a production of Carlos Gomes' long-forgotten "Il Guarany" -- added a fourth career to an already crowded resume.

Domingo may be only the world's second most famous tenor, but he is certainly the busiest. He has already sung more than 2,600 performances of 109 roles -- more than any other singer in history -- and at the age of 55 his voice shows no signs of wear and tear.

There's also his life as a part-time conductor -- he regularly appears on the podium in such prestigious places as the Vienna State Opera, London's Covent Garden and New York's Metropolitan. And Domingo is already an arts administrator; since 1984 he's been associated with the Los Angeles Opera, where he serves as artistic adviser as well as principal guest conductor.

Now the Washington Opera expects Domingo to do even more. The company expects his presence to entice better-known singers, conductors and stage directors to Washington. It hopes he will help bring to reality the company's dream of presenting Wagner's gargantuan "Ring" cycle, which is not only the ultimate test of an opera company, but also what certifies it as deserving of an international audience.

And, most of all, the Washington Opera expects the prestige of its new artistic director to help raise the $105 million it needs to renovate the old Woodward & Lothrop department store in downtown D.C. into the state-of-the-art opera house the company needs if it is to move out of the Kennedy Center and expand its schedule.

Domingo's appointment as artistic director, says Washington Opera executive director Patricia Mossel, positions the company to break out of the pack of other strong regional houses -- such as those in Houston, Los Angeles, Seattle and Miami -- toward the atmospheric niche occupied by the Chicago Lyric Opera, the San Francisco Opera and New York's Metropolitan Opera.

"It's absolutely a possibility," Mossel says. "Placido's arrival is a major watershed event in the artistic life of this city."

Off to a good start

Domingo is clearly off to a good start with his decision to open the season with "Il Guarany," which will be taped by PBS for a national telecast later this year. It has already garnered more attention for the Washington Opera than any it has received since 1986, when it presented the world premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti's "Goya," which starred Domingo in the title role.

With "Il Guarany" the company can expect to do better on all counts than with "Goya," which not only brought it money and attention, but also insulting reviews from all over the country. Although it has not been produced in North America since it was performed in New York 112 years ago during the Met's first season, "Il Guarany" is a genuine masterpiece. It may not reach Verdian heights, but it comes close enough to make it superior to standard repertory works by other young contemporaries of the master, such as Amilcare Ponchielli's "La Gioconda."

And in bringing the great German film director Werner Herzog to stage "Il Guarany," Domingo has decisively demonstrated his ability to attract the world's top creative talent to Washington.

The naysayers' view

Nevertheless, there were naysayers when Domingo was named as the opera's artistic director more than two years ago. The appointment of a busy international celebrity to head one of the city's important arts institutions reminded many Washingtonians of the National Symphony's decision to hire Mstislav Rostropovich as its music director in 1977.

The appointment brought an initial burst of publicity, a new recording contract with the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label, European tours and guest-conducting appearances by such Rostropovich friends as Leonard Bernstein and Georg Solti.

But even before the visits stopped coming and the recording contract failed to be renewed, Rostropovich's deficiencies had become apparent. He was too busy on the international scene to spend much time with the orchestra, and what time he did give it wasn't much help. He was a great cellist who -- outside of a few works in the Russian repertory -- never succeeded in becoming a proficient conductor. And the orchestra he left to his successor, Leonard Slatkin, was a mud-bespattered version of the smooth and clean ensemble Rostropovich had inherited from his predecessor, Antal Dorati.

But one huge difference between the two appointments is that when Rostropovich arrived, he needed on-the-job training. Domingo comes to the job completely prepared.

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