Well, we’re freshly back from an afternoon where the celebratory warmth in the auditorium was distinctly at odds with the repetitiously murderous events on stage. Anchored around Plácido Domingo, the final acts of Otello, Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra (strangling, stabbing and poisoning, respectively) provided more of an opportunity for the great man to celebrate his ensemble skills than for virtuoso display. Which is fitting, for an artist of his generosity and integrity.
The Otello performance didn’t, it has to be said, quite gel for me. It seemed to lie uncomfortably for Domingo, and that very quality of ensemble that I’ve just raised didn’t quite come off. It’s also not a work that responds well to having its final act lopped off for solo display. The audience must have agreed, as they behaved abominably: hacking, rasping, rustling, sneezing, bag-shuffling and ahem’ing their way through its entirety.
The remaining two pieces, though, saw Domingo in his more recent baritone territory and the voice was secure and thrilling at moments, as ever it was, even if, just here-and-there, there was the odd manoeuvring difficulty. I can’t deny that the grand old Doge or the desperate father didn’t seem to suit him better than the heroic warrior Otello. His death in the Boccanegra scene was startlingly effective as he stumbled to the ground, as was his anguish as Gilda died in his arms.
Support was consistently excellent. The Desdemona of Marina Poplavskaya was a little tentative at times, but that seemed true of much in the Otello act, and she improved in the Boccanegra. She is certainly a woman who divides: when she’s on form, I think she is tremendous, with a big, bright sound that can be very impressive; and then, just occasionally, the vocal control can seem to slip and it just misses its mark. Anyway, I enjoyed her contribution here. Perhaps even more impressive was the Gilda of Ailyn Pérez: a slight, vulnerable presence on stage, but with a voice of laser tone, though sensitively delivered: it was a shame Act 3 of Rigoletto doesn’t provide an opportunity for her Caro nome.
Francesco Meli was a ringing Duke of Mantua, seeming to enjoy his ‘turn’ with La donne è mobile. Veteran Paata Burchuladze was an appropriately dark Sparafucile, if not as malevolent as Raymond Aceto had been in that production, but was on finer form as a sepulchral Jacopo Fiesco in the Boccanegra. Justina Gringyte, a Young Artist, made much of Maddalena’s seduction and subsequent anguish, with a strong, rich mezzo.
Pappano and the orchestra got roundly cheered between each act, and rightly so: a fabulously dramatic sound, revelling in the ominous darkness of these three tragic pieces. The audience went a bit bonkers for Domingo, and hooray for that, and there was a touching bit of business in the curtain calls, with Pappano giving Our Hero a bit of shove to get him to take more ovations. A heart-warming afternoon indeed.
Firstly, the audience: I’ve already referred to their evident boredom for parts, notably Otello, but I have to place on record that this was one of the most shamefully behaved audiences I’ve ever been party to. The distracted, disinterested throat-clearing continued consistently through the performance, even if it improved for the ‘easier’ (for which, read ‘oom-pah-pah’) sections of Rigoletto. It maddens me that the tickets are so hard to get for something like this, but people can behave so disrespectfully. I can only assume that they are the corporate freebie brigade or the more-money-than-brains crowd. A message to them: if you can’t sit still, shut up and pay attention, then get the hell out of this theatre. For some of us, it matters.
Secondly, which I wouldn’t normally bother to do, but on this occasion it’s worth also putting on record my absolute rejection of the write-up of Thursday’s performance in The Telegraph. Of course, I wasn’t there, it may well have been a less successful performance. However, the general noise on Twitter would suggest it wasn’t any sort of great disaster. Assuming a broad comparability between the performances, then, that would suggest Christiansen’s account to be thoroughly mean-spirited and unpleasant. ‘Wake’ rather than ‘celebration’, indeed? Burchuladze ‘desiccated’? Well, he’s entitled to the opinion, of course, but it was worlds away from the affectionate evening that I’ve just enjoyed, revolving around the talents of one of the few remaining opera artists to have proved an incontrovertibly great craft over so very many years. Of course there would be a better all-round Otello available for booking, but that’s not the point: I just think the whole thing needed to be taken in the reflective, celebratory spirit in which it was intended.