I have never been a ‘Wagnerian’. I could never muster the patience to sit through hours of his operas. I found them bombastic. Pathetic. And even though I had to admit that there were some beautiful melodies, I felt that I really needed a pair of scissors and radically shorten them
That this feeling has totally changed, I owe to Domingo. In my collector’s mania (I had to have everything he had done), I bought the recently released Tannhäuser (DG 4276252) in 1989. And then it happened: I became addicted.
At first, it was mainly Domingo who was to ‘blame’, whose deeply human interpretation of the title role gave me the goose bumps. His words: “Wie sagst du, Wofram? Bist du denn nicht mein Feind?” (sung with emphasis on ‘mein’ and ‘Feind’ and with a childish question mark at the end of the phrase) caused me to burst into tears.
Later, I learned to appreciate the music for itself and to this day, Tannhäuser is not only a very beloved Wagner opera, but also one of my absolute favourites.
I still consider this recording, conducted very sensually by Giueseppe Sinopoli, to be one of the best ever. Also because all the roles (Cheryl Studer as Elisabeth and Agnes Baltsa as Venus, such wealth!) are excellently cast. At the time, in the eighties and early nineties, this was not necessarily a given.
For the 1998 recording of Der Fliegende Holländer (DG 4377782), Domingo added the role of Erik to his repertoire. His Erik is attractive and charming, he sings the role not only with great commitment but also very idiomatically.
This recording is particularly dear to me, not only because of Domingo, but also because of Cheryl Studer, at the time perhaps the most beautiful Senta imaginable. Her delightful lyrical soprano with its easy and sensual height is perfect for the role.
The Holländer is sung by Bernd Weikl. A little past his prime, but the role suits him and Peter Seiffert is wonderful as Der Steuerman.
Despite all the swans, Lohengrins do not usually fall out of the sky. Before officially recording the role in 1985 (Decca 4210532), Domingo had been preparing for it for almost twenty years. And the result was worth it.
At the time, the Puritans were all up in arms: a Germanic hero performed by a Spanish bel canto singer, and with an accent too – no, that was unacceptable. I can still vividly remember the reviews from those days, written by the renowned music critics (no, I’m not going to mention any names). They not only cried shame, but also knew for sure that his career was about to end, because this was destroying his voice. Well…
Today, almost 40 years later, we know better. Not only is his voice undamaged, but nowadays it is readily admitted that this was a formidable presentation, by one of the best tenors of the last century. His Lohengrin is not only heroic, but loving and warm-blooded, less god, more of a man.
Jessye Norman was the perfect Elsa in those days: young and innocent. And when you know that the conductor is called Solti…. Simply wonderful!
Domingo’s baptism of fire in the role of Lohengrin was in Hamburg in 1968. He was then 27 (!) years old. It was not only his first Wagner, it was also the very first time he sang an opera in German, a language he did not yet master.
Fragments of the performance have been preserved (e.g. Melodram MEL 26510). His voice sounds like a bell, with a lot of bronze and a golden shine. The high notes are high and sung in full. Where can you still experience a Lohengrin like this? So beautiful that it makes you want to cry.
His Elsa was Arlene Saunders, at that time a much-loved prima donna in Hamburg, today she is totally forgotten. How unjust! Saunders was not only an amazingly good singer, she was also a beautiful woman and an exemplary actress.
Below Placido Domingo and Arlene Saunders in ‘Das süße Lied…Wie hehr erkenn’ ich’:
In 2006, Domingo sang his last Parsifal (officially at least). It was recorded live in Vienna by Deutsche Grammophon (DG 4776006). Although he is audibly not a spring chicken anymore, he still manages to be utterly convincing, which is actually also true of Waltraud Meier’s Kundry.
Franz-Josef Selig is a fantastic Gurnemanz. His warm bass with its splendid legato seems created for all the long monologues. Falk Struckmann also is a splendid Amfortas.
It has been said of the conductor Christian Thielemann that he is a worthy successor to Furtwängler, and there is a lot of truth in that. He makes no secret of his predilection for the great German composers and his interpretations of them are rightly praised.
He also shares his capriciousness and wilfulness with his illustrious predecessor. His interpretations are therefore often controversial. I like that, because it forces the listener to listen attentively. In Parsifal, he emphasises the human aspect of the work rather than its mysticism. The truly brilliant orchestra follows closely behind.
In 1998 Tony Palmer made a very fascinating film titled Parsifal – The Search for the Grail (Arthaus 100610). Domingo is our host and he explains not only the work, but he also tells us the history of the Holy Grail.
It is a very fascinating and enjoyable quest, illustrated by excerpts from Indiana Jones and Monty Python, among others, and from a performance in the Mariinski Theatre, with, alongside Domingo, Violeta Urmana as Kundry and Matti Salminen as Gurnemanz. Gergiev conducts.
In the winter of 2004/2005 the moment had finally come: the crowning glory of Domingo’s long career. Tristan had been on his wish list for a long time and twice it had almost come true (Bayreuth and Vienna), but in the end he dared not go through with it. But he seized the opportunity to record it with both hands.
EMI (now Warner Classics 5099996686423) immediately made a true feast of it and went all out – it is said that the project cost almost a million euros!
The result is overwhelming. Nina Stemme sings a young and vulnerable Isolde and René Pape is one of the best Markes I have ever heard. His monologue ‘Tatest du’s wirklich’ is among the most beautiful and moving moments of the opera.
Domingo is a Tristan to fall in love with. He is a man, a human being of flesh and blood, if necessary heroic and strong, but also weak and fragile. He is loyal, but mostly in love, until, finally, death comes for him.
His interpretation bears little resemblance to that of other great Tristans in history. That is not surprising: he is not a heroic tenor. But singing is what matters most to me, and does he sing! Peter Alward (EMI’s outgoing A&R producer and the mastermind behind the recording) in an interview once said, that he would not be surprised if a whole future generation of Wagner tenors committed mass harakiri after listening to Domingo in the role.
Domingo als Siegmund in Washington in 2007.
By now, Domingo pretty much identifies himself with Siegmund (Die Walküre), and it was also his most frequently performed Wagner role. I heard him sing it in London, at the Proms, an experience never to be forgotten.
There are plenty of recordings in circulation, official and less official, so I assume you will have at least one of them. If you are interested, that is.
fragment of his debut in the role (Vienna 1992) with Waltraud Meier as Sieglinde:
No. He has never tried Siegfried, at least not on the stage, and it is very unlikely that he will do so in the future, but with Domingo you never know. After all he surprises us every year with at least one new role, no small feat when you turn 80!
On a CD with the title Scenes from the Ring (once EMI 5572422, probably not available anymore) he sings all the great music from both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung and he is doing it great. Just listen to ‘Nothung’ or ‘Dass mein Vater nicht ist’, not to mention ‘Brünnhilde! Heilige Braut!’. Can it get any more impressive? What a pleasure to hear him in this role.