Domingo shines in `Le Cid'

November 02, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Zeppelins have been out of use ever since the Hindenburg blew itself and many of its passengers to kingdom come in 1937. But it would be interesting to see -- even to take a short flight in -- one of those outmoded airships.

It is in that spirit that one recommends the Washington Opera's staging of Massenet's "Le Cid" -- which opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House and which the company calls the first staged production since 1902. This is a spare-no-expense, blow-your-socks-off production of a once-popular opera in a long-obsolete genre, French grand opera.

It is hard to imagine "Le Cid" better performed than in this co-production with Teatro de la Maestranza, Seville, which stars tenor (and Washington Opera artistic director) Placido Domingo. Then, again, it's not likely that one would want another encounter. Listeners addicted to French grand opera -- from its first flowering in the works of Meyerbeer to its last stand in those of Massenet -- resemble the folks for whom eating one banana split is one too many and for whom, thereupon, eating a thousand is never enough.

Jules Massenet (1842-1912), the most popular French composer of the last quarter of the 19th century, was a businessman musician who knew what the public wanted and never hesitated to pander to it.

His great innovation was to combine the grandeur of the form he had inherited from Meyerbeer with the intimacy and sentimentality made popular by Gounod. Massenet's operas can be compared to a cross between a Cecil B. DeMille epic and a George Cukor weepy. Massenet's specialty was a kind of quasi-religious, sugared eroticism -- and the public could never seem to get enough of it.

"I don't believe in all that creeping Jesus stuff," the composer once remarked. "But the public likes it, and we must always agree with the public."

"Le Cid" (1885), based on Pierre Corneille's 17th-century drama of the same name, is probably Massenet's mightiest effort. Certainly, it's hard to think of anything quite so large or expensive that has previously graced the Washington Opera's stage. The opera, which was directed and designed (in a beautiful Spanish baroque style) by Hugo De Ana, required the services of about 150 principal singers, choristers, dancer and extras. One may question the purpose for, but not the manner in which so much money was spent. This was a very loud, stirring performance.

The title role was written for the legendary Jean de Reske's Paris debut -- and heroic tenors have been attracted to "Le Cid" ever since.

But if it was a vanity production, Domingo surely deserves our indulgence. At age 58, he is little short of a vocal miracle. He recorded this opera more than 20 years ago. On Saturday, he poured out an unfailing stream of heroic tone -- effortless, unforced and beautiful.

Domingo surrounded himself with good singers. His Chimene was the Portuguese soprano Elisabete Matos. She has a big voice and even bigger potential. At the start, she was somewhat hard of timbre at high dynamic levels, but as the opera progressed her voice became warmer and steadier. "Le Cid" is filled with overblown music, but Matos made her big aria -- "Pleurez, pleurez mes yeux" in Act III -- sound as if it was about something important.

The role of Don Diegue -- written for Jean de Reske's equally legendary brother, basso Eduard de Reske -- was sung commandingly by Hao Jiang Tian. Rounding out the fine cast were Kimm Julian as the King, William Parcher as the Count de Gormas and Angela Turner Wilson as the Infanta. The performance was conducted by the knowledgeable Emmanuel Villaume with verve and style.

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