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Domingo Digs Deep; Decadent Giovanni; Lusty Tosca; London Stage

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Cheryl Enever
Cheryl Enever as Tosca in the Opera a la Carte production of the Puccini opera. With only chamber-sized forces, the company creates an impressive production of the opera. Photographer: Nicola Lande/Opera a la Carte via Bloomberg

July 7 (Bloomberg) -- Tenor Placido Domingo has made history by switching voice types to sing the baritone role of Simon Boccanegra in Berlin, New York, and Milan. Now, three months after his successful operation for colon cancer, he’s in London digging again to the baritone bedrock of his voice.

What a voice. He’s as stylish, passionate and authoritative as ever in the title role of Verdi’s opera, and as magnetic on stage too.

That said, it’s more of a fascinating experiment than a triumph. The notes are there, granted. They’re just not the most exciting notes in his range. His baritone register is rich and rounded, not goose-bump thrilling.

Still, trying to grade Domingo on stage is like trying to give a star rating to a lightning strike or hurricane. Domingo is a force of nature, plain and simple, and it’s wonderful to see him back on stage after his time in the hospital.

The staging is easier to rate. The complicated plot, which is about a Genoese Renaissance Doge who dreams of uniting Italy, takes in a 25-year timeframe. The chorus scenes are static, and confrontations between characters rambling. The pacing feels like the speed of Venice sinking. Slowed by half.

The luscious tenor sound of Joseph Calleja as the firebrand Gabriele Adorno, and the boomy bass of Ferrucio Furlanetto (as Boccanegra’s enemy Fiesco) provide distraction. Marina Poplavskaya, who strains to sing pianissimo as the heroine Amelia, doesn’t always even manage that.

Conductor Antonio Pappano makes the orchestra sound gorgeous. So it’s all the more unfortunate that the good parts don’t add up to a good whole.

Rating: ** ½.

‘Don Giovanni’

For a truly innovative staging, head to Stephen Barlow’s production of “Don Giovanni” at Opera Holland Park.

Barlow’s point of reference is Oscar Wilde’s story “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” The set creates a luxurious English mansion in which rows and rows of identical portraits (of baritone Nicholas Garrett as Don Giovanni) adorn the walls.

It’s a neat way of suggesting the decadence and narcissism of Giovanni’s life, and also his elevated social status. Without giving too much away, it also leads the audience to guess how Giovanni will eventually die and be dragged to hell. Barlow still manages to keep the surprises coming right until the end.

Garrett is a superb Giovanni, combining arrogance and humor with just the right amount of psychopathic coldness, and he’s matched by an amusing Leporello in Matthew Hargreaves. Ana James has too light a voice for Donna Anna, and doesn’t provide enough contrast with the excellent Elvira (Laura Mitchell) and Zerlina (Claire Wild). Robert Dean keeps things cracking along with some speedy tempi.

Rating: ***.

Energetic ‘Tosca’

There are more thrills and spills in a terrific, tiny-budget “Tosca” from Opera a la Carte, which is now touring. Director Nicholas Heath updates the action to the late 1940s and, with awe-inspiring economy, invests the action with a highly effective film-noir sensibility. If just a couple of moments lack punch, the overall energy doesn’t flag.

Cheryl Enever reprises the femme fatale look of Joan Crawford in “Mildred Pierce” beautifully, and sings a fine Tosca. Charne Rochford (Cavaradossi) and Paul Keohone (Scarpia) are uniformly good too.

The accompaniment, arranged for piano, organ and percussion, provides a surprising amount of beefiness. Even the climax to Act 1, which usually requires a massed chorus, works beautifully with just a handful of singers and the organ and bells at full blast.

It was a mad risk to stage “Tosca” as a chamber-sized piece. Heath’s lusty production shows that the greater the risk, the greater the rewards.

Rating: ***.

“Simon Boccanegra” is in repertoire at the Royal Opera until July 15. Information: http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000.

“Don Giovanni” plays in tandem with “Fidelio” at Opera Holland Park until July 14. Information: http://www.ohp.rbkc.gov.uk or +44-845-230-9769.

Opera a la Carte’s “Tosca” is now touring until July 31. Information: http://www.operaalacarte.com or +44-20-7724-2696

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

To contact the writer on the story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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