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Bob Bernard's Corner: A Lion Ruled the Streets

Otello

By Bob Bernard and Eleanor Gnup

Otello, the Lion of Venice, is delayed in disembarking onto Cyprus by a raging storm; Plácido Domingo’s Otello entrance onto the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for LA Opera’s inaugural performance on the evening of October 7, 1986, was delayed by a stuck curtain – also a transient hindrance.

Balcony residents on this historic night were able to see Domingo’s entrance because – for the dress rehearsal – at his first entrance Domingo realized that he could not see the balcony. He stopped the rehearsal and demanded that the staging be moved forward: "If I cannot see them, they cannot see me." The unit set of Designer Schneider-Siemssen was adjusted forthwith.

Domingo returned to LA Opera as Otello for performance runs in 1989 and 1995, all three performance runs using a production shared with Houston Grand Opera , with stage direction by Götz Friedrich (’86 and ’89) and Christopher Harlan (’95). The Iagos were Sherrill Milnes, Justino Diaz and Gregory Yurisich; the Desdemonas were Gabriela Benackova, Ilona Tokody and June Anderson. Domingo’s final Otello performance at the Met was on 10/12/99, with Barbara Frittoli as Desdemona and James Morris as Iago.

LA Opera’s opener came near the midpoint of Domingo’s historic performance run as Otello. The first was on September 28, 1975, in Hamburg (with early roles as Cassio in Monterrey in 1960, and Mexico City and Hartford in 1962).


Hamburg, 1975

Katia Ricciarelli was Desdemona. Domingo was joined by Sherrill Milnes’ Iago, and with James Levine conducting his continental European debut, these three (then) Young Lions combined to produce a ferocious, ultra-fast-paced opening scene. The audio may be listened to via YouTube here.

From Hamburg, in the next three years Domingo sang Otello in Madrid, La Scala, Barcelona, Munich, Paris, and San Francisco. His Otello “disembarked” at the Met in 1979 and at Covent Garden in 1980.

The Met’s 1995 revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s production provided the occasion for Domingo to meet Renée Fleming in October of that year:

"Ms. Fleming [second cast] had not taken part in the initial rehearsals, but did have
to rehearse the very dramatic duet in Act III, where Otello hurls Desdemona to the
floor. Domingo walked up to Fleming, slapped her face and whispered, ‘Hello, I’m
Plácido Domingo, nice to meet you.’

"‘And,’ remembers Fleming, ‘after the rehearsal I could hardly walk! I literally had
to hold on to the rails in order to climb up a pair of steps because my legs were
shaking. Plácido was so terrifying in that scene, so real, that he produced an equally
real reaction in me.’"

The above incident was excerpted from Plácido Domingo: My Operatic Roles by
Helena Matheopoulos; Little, Brown & Co. 2000

 

Powerful, moving films of Domingo as Otello were made by Zeffirelli at La Scala in 1986 and at the Met in 1995. His 1992 Otello telecast from Covent Garden was captured beautifully by film director Dr. Brian Large:


with Kiri Te Kanawa as Desdemona                                                 with Sergei Leiferkus as Iago

By 2001 - with his then having logged well over two hundred performances as the Moor - La Scala was designated to host Domingo’s farewell appearances as Otello.

One of these performances evolved into the sort of night from which opera legends are made. It almost ended in mid-performance:

"La Scala's traditional opening night, Dec. 7, had gone exceptionally well. However,
midway into the second act on Tuesday, December 12, as Domingo and Leo Nucci
[Iago] began the famous duet that ends with Otello and Iago swearing vengeance,
Domingo seemed to be taking some high notes cautiously. In the middle of the aria
'Ore e per sempre,' Mr. Domingo sang 'addio, addio' … and then stopped.


La Scala, 2001

"The orchestra also stopped. He raised his hand to his chest and throat, stepped
forward and told the audience in Italian that he could not carry on. ''Mi spiace,'' he
said. ''Mi spiace.'' (''I'm sorry. I'm sorry.'') Then he turned and left the stage.
Maestro Muti quickly left the orchestra pit and followed Domingo to his dressing
room.

"La Scala, a mecca for opera buffs the world over, can be one of the harshest and
most demanding of houses. Singers have been hounded from the stage by audiences.
The notorious loggionisti, the supercritics of the upper galleries, have never been
shy about hurling whistles and catcalls at performers.

"As the minutes ticked away on the giant clock above the proscenium, the audience
sat in anxious silence.

"Muti returned to explain that Domingo, even before the performance, was not
feeling well, but had not wanted to make an announcement beforehand to ask the
audience's indulgence – a common practice from singers who feel they may not
deliver their best on a particular night. Domingo had chosen to go ahead with the
performance, but when his voice began to fail, he had to leave the stage. Now,
having rested briefly, he would now attempt to finish the opera.

"With his return, Domingo endeared himself to the La Scala audience, which greeted
him with sustained applause and foot-stomping. Clearly moved – and with tears in
his eyes - Domingo raised his hands to his heart and lips, gesturing his appreciation
for the audience's understanding.

"By the final 'bacio' in the death scene, Domingo could have run for mayor of Milan
and won in a landslide."

The above report was adapted and condensed from a review written by Wilborn
Hampton, then a journalist with United Press International

The final scene, with the Desdemona of Barbara Frittoli, showed Domingo costumed in African gear – an interpretation favored by Domingo - showing that Otello, still deeply rooted in his African origins (an explication influenced by Sir Lawrence Olivier’s 1965 film of Othello), carries within him all the beliefs inherent in his religion, and that his killing of Desdemona is to be a ritualistic manifestation of these core beliefs.


La Scala, 2001

Otello’s dying words while reaching for Desdemona’s hand: “un bacio ancora” left him - much as Domingo’s relinquishing this role left opera-lovers … wishing for more.

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Acknowledgements: 1. Material drawn from (a) Plácido Domingo: My First Forty Years; Alfred A. Knoft, 1981 and (b) Plácido Domingo: My Operatic Roles by Helena Matheopoulos; Little, Brown & Co., 2000 2. Opera League members: Jay Galbraith provided ongoing technical assistance with respect to photo image processing and also provided the late Dale Ross’s memory from LA Opera’s dress rehearsal of its first Otello. 3. Photo images excerpted from (a) The telecast of Otello from Covent Garden in 1992 and (b) YouTube recording from La Scala in 2001.
Author: Thomas Lady
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