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Plácidalia: The Empire Strikes Ahead 

Wednesday, Sep 27 2000
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Photo by Peter Mountain

First there was the promise: “Operalia,” Plácido Domingo’s contest teeming with enough spectacular young singing talent to run half a dozen opera companies. Then there was fulfillment: Aïda at long last, imperfectly sung but strongly led; Wagner at long last, heaven-sent. Then came the reward: big money allocated by philanthropist Alberto Vilar with wisdom and enthusiasm, lavish enough to stand as a declaration of restored faith in an art where crises of faith have become a way of life. This all happened in little more than a week, earlier this month, during which Domingo staked out the Los Angeles Opera as his empire grand beyond expectations — even beyond hopes. Peter Hemmings had laid the company’s foundations 15 years ago, and, even with a wobble here and there, they have held firm. Now they have been spectacularly built upon.

There had been reasons to question the L.A. Opera’s destiny under its new artistic director, and some of them have been expressed on this page from time to time. History has not been kind to superstar performers recast in management roles, in opera and in other fields as well. Domingo’s first major moves here since taking office, as noted in not one but two press conferences a couple of weeks ago, have been particularly shrewd in addressing some of the most-discussed company weaknesses in the Hemmings years. One concerns holes in the repertory, and so the 2001-02 season starts by filling two of them: the company’s first-ever Russian opera, Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame, once before promised but dropped, followed a week later by Lohengrin to cancel out a hitherto inadequate attention to Wagner’s music dramas. Another concerns the lack of a consistently strong podium; and so superconductor Valery Gergiev, czar of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky (a.k.a. Kirov) Opera and of points west, will lead the Tchaikovsky opera, and the splendid Kent Nagano — the company’s new principal conductor — will lead the Wagner.

On the whole, the next season as announced, and the snippets of ensuing seasons that have been allowed to leak out, promise a higher measure of enterprise than in the recent past — in some ways better balanced than the high-adventure programming of the first years under Hemmings, and in some ways not. (Where’s the Janácek?) Credit Domingo with the awareness that his own starry presence — on the stage, on the podium, or on the rostrum at fund-raisers — will enable a certain amount of innovation, even if taken one step at a time, as in the one-performance-only Moses und Aron on next year’s agenda.

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Inevitably, the majority of the upcoming repertory is in shared productions with companies in Madrid, the Kirov, Paris, Berlin, wherever. This is one of opera’s current realities; no house, not even the Met or La Scala, can survive without sharing. But if one announced production, the George Lucas–designed Ring of the Nibelung planned for 2003-04, comes in as spectacular as it promises, it will define the uniqueness of Los Angeles opera for all time. Why else do the Ring, in these times of only so-so singing talent, unless from the hands of Lucas and his Industrial Light and Magic wizards? Isn’t this the final proof of what we already suspect, that the whole of Star Wars is basically the reaffirmation of Wagner’s grandiose creation, and of the legends that guided his hand? Eat your hearts out, Seattle and Bayreuth; this is where the Ring belongs, where the “total artwork” of Wagner’s dreams took shape on storyboard and sound stage.

The Kirov connection is fascinating. It was baptized in no uncertain terms in the Wagner concert that capped the first week of local opera: complete acts from Die Walküre and Parsifal with Domingo as both Siegmund and Parsifal, respectable supporting casts, and Gergiev’s wild and wonderful Kirov Orchestra brought over for the event, its bronzed resonance a virtual mirror of the state of Domingo’s voice these days. Domingo has edged into Wagner for several years; his German vowels have a decidedly Mediterranean cast, but the ardor in both roles — opera’s most illustrious nincompoops — was genuine and moving. No casts have yet been announced for next season, but I wouldn’t count on Domingo’s not taking on a Lohengrin or two. He’s entitled.

Both Los Angeles and St. Petersburg will bask in Alberto Vilar’s fabulous benefice: $24 million to underwrite new productions — opera and, for the Kirov, ballet — as well as touring and young-artist training programs. Vilar is 59, of Cuban-American background, founder and head of New York’s Amerindo Investment Advisors, an arts patron on a scale that I thought had gone out of style, benefactor of nearly every opera company you can name plus the Vilar Center for the Arts in Beaver Creek, Colorado. An eyebrow or two might be raised at the notion of two major performing forces on opposite sides of the planet being heavily bankrolled from funds out of somewhere midway between the two. I would hope that one result of this magnanimity would be an increase in local support, as the L.A. Opera’s cultural relevance is strengthened under its new management. It’s fun to read reviews of brand-new operas at Salzburg financed by the Los Angeles patron Betty Freeman; it would be even more fun to read that the L.A. Opera’s newfound enterprise might also merit her support. It has never made sense to me, furthermore, how little, or how misguidedly, the Hollywood crowd has participated in opera production over the years. With a Lucas Ring on the far horizon, plus William Friedkin and Maximilian Schell among next season’s announced directors, some kind of entente might well be in the works.

Domingo cornered me one day, during a break in the “Operalia” competition. My negativism toward some of his moves with the company had hurt, he said; it was time to start thinking positively. Well, okay; but Domingo doesn’t need the critics to write his publicity, and I still think last season’s La Rondine was a mistake, and a scary one at that. Right now my positive feelings toward the company — after the far horizons revealed by this month’s announcements, the extraordinary level of talent displayed by the top contenders at “Operalia” (the best of them, by the way, clustered around age 26 and therefore well enough along to rank as finished artists rather than merely promising kids) and the brassy-bronze glories of Gergiev’s conducting — have raised my hopes as high as at any time since the company started. A few months ago I was lunched by Edgar Baitzel, the company’s artistic administrator, who tickled my expectations with promises of a Ring and Moses und Aron and Gergiev. I wrote it off at the time as pie in the sky. Now that pie is on the table, à la mode.

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