Review: Domingo’s Swashbuckling, Cinematic San Francisco “Cyrano” – November 6, 2010

Placido Domingo first performed at San Francisco Opera in 1969 (a single performance as Rodolfo in “La Boheme”) at age 28. Forty-one years later, at age 69, he returned to the War Memorial Opera House after an absence of 16 seasons, for appearances rich with symbolism and strategic purpose.

There is much that is remarkable about his personal performance, that of his colleagues, and the production and opera chosen for his triumphant return. I suspect some of my observations will be consonant with the reports of others, even if I bring up some facts of interest to me that I doubt have occurred to others.

Domingo as French Opera Specialist

As an example of the latter, the performance I attended, according to my calculations, is his 40th performance in French at San Francisco’s opera house. There he has sung only 39 performances in Italian, 38 of those performances occurring before New Year’s Eve 1979.

(The one time Domingo has sung in Italian at the San Francisco Opera after the 1970s was the famous night in 1983 when he was persuaded to fly from New York City to San Francisco to substitute for an ailing Carlo Cossutta on the Opera’s opening night. The Opera’s then general director Terry McEwen even switched the Opera Ball and moved the opera’s start to 10 p.m. to give time for Domingo’s airplane to arrive in California.)

It will surprise some that an opera by Italian composer Franco Alfano is sung in French, but that is the language of its libretto, and there is abundant justification, once one has made the decision to mount the opera, to choose the French over the Italian version of it.

Of course the decision to mount any opera in which Domingo appears has for some years been the sole prerogative of Domingo himself. He is one of the few opera singers whom one can legitimately call a celebrity superstar. If you are lucky enough to persuade him to come to your city, the opera you present is whatever he wishes to sing.

Domingo has found the role of Cyrano to be a good fit for his voice and a couple of worthy productions, including the very spectacular one seen here from Paris’ Theatre du Chatelet, have emerged to accommodate Domingo’s interest in the piece. Thus, artistic managements that would never would have thought of performing an Alfano opera, have had the incentive to learn how to perform “Cyrano” really well.

[Below: Placido Domingo as Cyrano de Bergerac; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Doing “Cyrano” well requires approaching the opera as something like a cinematic spectacle – Errol Flynn’s name and persona are conjured often by commentators on this opera. But the opera is not just spectacle, it also contains scenes as quietly sentimental as one may find in a Massenet opera. In fact, the librettist, Henri Cain, was Massenet’s librettist for several of his last works, including “Don Quichotte (Don Quixote)” and “Cendrillon”.

The Melding of Opera Performance, Spectacle, and Swashbuckling

“Swashbuckling” is a term from the history of fencing, whose etymology derives from some showy 16th century sword-fighting techniques that gave their name first to the Romantic era plays and novels that glamorized medieval knights and sword-wielding musketeers, and later to the Hollywood films that brought those Romantic era plays and novels to the silver screen. Present day swashbucklers also are found in such newer entertainment media as videogames.

So much swordfighting is called for in 19th century French and Italian opera that many companies utilize a professional “fight director” for staging the scenes. In “Cyrano” it is so integral to the plot that the debuting Fight Captain (Charles Currier) leads a team of eight fencers (also including Peter Greathouse, Robert J. Hamilton, Kurt Krikorian, Dave Maier, Kai Morrison, Karl Ramsey and Artie Ray) in stunning displays of swashbuckling in the several scenes in which sword-fighting abounds.

But this is not the sword-fighting to upbeat melodic “action music”  that we might see in Gounod’s “Faust” or “Romeo et Juliette” or Verdi’s “Ernani” or “Trovatore”.  Alfano’s music, in the first three of the four acts, uses the thick orchestration and style of building climaxes on top of climaxes that one associates with action movie sound tracks, particularly those from the early decades of sound and color movies. Some of the most famous of the swashbuckling movie scores of the 1930s (such as those by Erich Korngold, composer of the opera “Die Tote Stadt”) are  contemporaneous with Alfano’s “Cyrano”.

Full Stage Set Designs

In a previous review of the Kirov Mariinsky production of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” (see Going For the Gold: Kirov Ring’s “Das Rheingold” in Costa Mesa – October 6, 2006), I discussed the theories of Russian set designer George Tsypin that promoted operatic sets that use the full vertical and horizontal spaces of an opera house’s stage. Petrika Ionesco, the Franco-Rumanian stage director and set designer for the Theatre du Chatelet production, created sets that quite impressively showed off the War Memorial Opera stage’s vertical and horizontal dimensions.

[Below: the Theatre of the Hotel de Bourgogne; resized image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Three scenes are clearly designed for their razzle dazzle – the Theatre of the Hotel du Bourgogne, that of Rugueneau’s bakery (surely an education to many of us in how complex food preparation was in Royal Paris) and the battlefield near Arras. Each of these spectacles comes off as – well, spectacular.

[Below: Rugueneau’s bakery; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Rather more intimate scenes occur in the courtyard under Roxane’s balcony and the convent garden. Both scenes’ homage to Debussy and Massenet are evident in both the sung conversational style (parlando) one associates with late 19th century French opera and some of the harmonic structures from these two Grand Prix de Rome laureates.

A menage a trois of unrequited love

By coincidence, Domingo’s consecutive roles have been the poet Pablo Neruda in Catan’s “Il Postino” at Los Angeles Opera and Cyrano. Both Pablo and Cyrano are mentors to inarticulate romantic leads, who need assistance in learning how to express themselves in a way that will cause a woman whom they love to take them seriously.

I have argued that many operatic plots that are often maligned as incredulous – from Bellini’s “Norma” to Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” to Delibes’ “Lakme” – actually make sense if some premises are considered.

One does come across opera plots that it is best simply to consider as metaphors or even fairy tales. “Cyrano” arguably is  best considered as a metaphorical statement for recognizing internal beauty or some similar high-minded concept. The sentiments that provide such angst to Roxane, Christian and Cyrano seem remote to our 21st century sensibilities. Since we as the audience can easily see through (and dismiss) the issues that paralyze the main characters, one can be impatient to get back to the real problems of people like, say, the four main characters of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”.

But, all belief suspended, it is clever craftsmanship to devise a ensemble for a soprano to participate in what might be considered either successive alternating duets with two tenors, or, alternatively a trio, in which one character believes that the other characters are the same person.

[Below: Roxane (Ainhoa Arteta, on balcony above) is charmed by the poetic speech of whom she thinks is Christian (Thiago Arancam, left), but is really that of Cyrano (Placido Domingo, right).]

Notes on the Musical Performance

If one considers the opera as a vehicle for displaying the present day voice of Placido Domingo advantageously, it  achieved its objective admirably. In accompanying program notes, Domingo said he became interested in the opera, because it was role chosen by Ramon Vinay,  the great Chilean heldentenor. Vinay, who sang at San Francisco Opera, as first a tenor and then in the 1960s as a baritone, extended his career through his judicious choice of late career repertory.

Domingo has continued to amaze listeners at the power and beauty in his voice. This is the seventh review I have posted of Domingo’s vocal performances (see hyperlinks to each of the other reviews at the bottom of this page), which would be a much longer list if my reviews of performances for which he was conductor were also referenced.

The dramatic tenor voice typically has a baritonal quality. As Domingo’s voice has matured that baritonal part of his voice has become lustrous. Cyrano is a role that shows that luster most advantageously.

[Below: Cyrano (Placido Domingo, first row center with sword) stands next to Carbon (Lester Lynch, front row, third from left), chief of Cyrano’s cadets who will be massacred at the Battle of Arras; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Those playing Domingo’s co-leads were the Spanish soprano Ainhoa Arteta (Roxane) and the Brazilian tenor Thiago Arancam (Christian). Arteta, famous for her work in zarzuela, who had appeared at San Francisco Opera as Musetta in four performances of Puccini’s “La Boheme” 11 seasons ago, made a strong impression in a not particularly sympathetic role. Arancam, whom the San Francisco Opera has announced will return next year, made a favorable impression in his debut season.

It has become an honor to be invited to participate in a Domingo performance. The large cast included several comprimario roles that singers with established careers were happy to take on. Brian Mulligan, whose last several months have been spent in the French repertory at San Francisco Opera (including Valentin in Gounod’s “Faust” and Albert in Massenet’s “Werther”), made a striking impression as Ragueneau.

Lester Lynch, who was Crown in the San Francisco Opera’s performances  of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”, was a solid Carbon, and Stephen Powell was notable as Dr Guiche. Leah Crocetto, an Adler Fellow and Rising Star, made a vivid impression as Lisa. Timothy Mix, Maya Lahyani and Austin Kness took on smaller assignments, while Peruvian musical comedy star Martin Rojas-Dietrich got abundant laughs as Montfleury.

Domingo has been an aggressive proponent of repertory expansion, and has used his star power to assure that new works and newly discovered works from the past are seen by modern opera audiences. With several baroque works (including Handel’s “Tamerlano” that he has championed), and increasing numbers of French works now being performed more often, the neglected works of the Italian verismo, both contemporaneous with and following the era of Puccini’s operatic productivity, are ripe for re-examination.

“Cyrano”, which straddles the French and Italian operatic worlds, is an interesting choice for revival. Ionesco’s production is praiseworthy, and worthy of the investment of one’s time and money, whether or not the opera finds champions in some future time when Domingo is not performing it. The conductor, Massenet advocate Patrick Fournillier, is unquestionably the supreme conducting authority on the work. Every member of the cast contributes to an entertaining evening.

[Below: Roxane (Ainhoa Arteta) is visited at her convent by Cyrano (Placido Domingo), when she realizes that it is he with whose poetic speech she had fallen in love; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

For my reviews of Domingo performances from the past half decade, see: Domingo is the Redeemer of L.A.’s spellbound “Parsifal”: December 8, 2005, and

Zambello’s Dazzling “American Ring ‘Walkuere’” at Kennedy Center – March 28, 2007, and

Sonic Splendor: Domingo, Conlon Lead Impressively Sung, Engaging “Walkuere” for L. A. Opera – April 12, 2009, and

Domingo’s Towering “Tamerlano” Bajazet: Los Angeles Opera – November 22, 2009, and

An Incredible Domingo and Other Marvels of the Los Angeles Opera Ring – “Walkuere”, May 30, 2010, and

Audience Ovation for Domingo, Castronovo in Catan’s “Postino” – Los Angeles Opera, September 29, 2010.