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Arts and Entertainment

Placido Domingo is 'Simon Boccanegra' at LA Opera

Domingo works the crowd in LA Opera's "Simon Boccanegra" (Photo: Robert Millard)
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"He can still sing!" we overheard one distinguished patron of the opera asserting to his wife as they left their seats for intermission at the Wednesday performance of the first-ever LA Opera production of Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra." "And he moves around the stage, too!" the wife observed with comparable enthusiasm.

"He," of course, is Placido Domingo, arguably the world's greatest opera singer—and star—of the last four or five decades and, not incidentally, the LA Opera company's General Director. Now 70, an age at which most singers have long since laid their careers to rest, the time-defying Spaniard still performs one role here each season. Something of a novelty this year is that the title role he assays in this opera is a baritone, rather than a tenor, part. Domingo seems perfectly comfortable singing in this lower register, though, and his always-commanding stage presence (he had elevated the art of acting in opera well before ubiquitous translation titles made this emphasis generally more commonplace) is undiminished.

An elliptical plot line has tended to relegate "Simon Boccanegra" to the second rank of Verdi operas (the work was substantially rewritten a quarter century after it initially flopped in 1857). But it does contain scenes and character encounters of great dramatic power. And fortunately Domingo is not the only strong performer in this cast. As Simon's long-lost daughter Amelia, who has fallen in love with her father's political rival, Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez lights up the stage with both passion and innocence. Paolo Gavanelli plays up the sourness of the villain who tries to abduct Amelia and eventually kills Simon. And Ukrainian baritone Vitalij Kowaljow as Fiesco, who has raised Amelia without knowing he's actually her grandfather, conveys just the right balance of sorrow for the perceived loss of his own family and dignified contempt for Simon, on whom he blames his misfortune.

But the opera is called "Simon Boccanegra" for a reason. In one of the greatest baritone roles Verdi created, a brutally strong yet beneficent political leader whose ironic sense of tragedy allows him to cede his power to the erstwhile enemy Amelia has fallen in love with, Domingo dominates, without overwhelming, the proceedings. He laughs with us when the angry mob calling for his death suddenly changes its stance and sings his praise. His closing duet with Fiesco, in which he reveals Amelia's identity just before he dies, is extraordinarily moving. His death itself, even though we know it's coming, provides quite a jolt, too. As music critic Charles Osborne has written that "it is Boccanegra [himself] who really bestrides the opera like a colossus," Domingo here bestrides the stage, and inhabits the role, on a no less formidable scale.

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Domingo will be back in the fall in another Verdi opera, "The Two Foscari." But his current contract with the LA Opera expires in 2013, so who knows if that won't be his swan song with the company? If you don't want to miss him, he's here right now.

LA Opera's "Simon Boccanegra" plays Sundays at 2 p.m. through March 4; 7:30 p.m. weekday performances February 21 and March 1. Tickets $20 and up.