Perhaps no artist in the modern opera world is as iconic as Plácido Domingo. He has defied expectations at every turn, taking on more roles (and continuing to do so) than any other singer history. He is also a conductor and impresario and has taken on many humanitarian and educational programs throughout his stories career. And his career is still chugging along, leaving observers with the expectations of more surprises on the horizon.
This Saturday, Jan. 21, the hero of many turns 76. In honor of his birthday, I want to take a look at one role, and a specific recording of it that had a major impact on my love for opera.
When we look back at Plácido Domingo’s career, we see a tremendous breadth of different operas and unique interpretations. But for me, there is none better than Verdi’s “Otello.” It’s not a surprising choice to be sure and a ton has been essayed about Domingo’s interpretation of Verdi’s fallen hero, but the truth is that it is simply never enough when relating his work in this role.
For many his was the definitive portrayal of an entire generation, with no other tenor really challenging Domingo’s for the decades that it stood. For me, his portrayal of “Otello” is what made me truly fall in love with opera and develop a, to this point, never-ending obsession with Verdi’s penultimate work, my personal favorite.
Many point to his later years as the apex of his performance, and while I certainly agree with many remarks, my personal favorite document of Domingo’s “Otello” is actually from early in his career, specifically his recording with Renata Scotto and Sherrill Milnes. We don’t get to see Domingo on stage or in front of the camera, his imposing presence and expressive face dominating every moment of every scene he is in. It is true that this early recording also sees Domingo’s voice lacking in the vocal “edge” or potency that is usually expected of the role, but in its place we find a youthfulness that is not heard in later recordings or even performances. This is arguable Domingo’s voice at its most flexible, every peak and valley of Verdi’s dangerous vocal line met, if not with power or edge, with elegance and assuredness. This works best with the lyrical passages in the opera, the love duet with Renata Scotto, in my opinion, one of the most gorgeous renditions in how it unifies the lovers musically. Most other Otello’s lack Domingo’s finesse of line in this passage, creating a very big contrast with the Bel Canto style we get from sopranos. It works dramatically, but can be a bit off-putting in this duet where the lovers are one in their love. The rupture has not arrived just yet and a unified vocal approach really drives home the feeling of connection between the two.
His execution also contrasts nicely with the more pointed approach of Sherrill Milnes, though admittedly the coarser sound of Sergei Leiferkus and Domingo’s brighter sound are by far the best dramatic counterpoints in the later DG recording. Where Milnes’ emphatic diction and vocal modulation brilliantly chews up musical scenery, Domingo retains composure in his singing, giving a defined sense of the characters’ opposition.
Domingo would go on to provide different insights in the role in later years, his Otello developing that “edge” while still managing to display that elegance from that early recording. But there is a charm in that performance and a heroic innocence that we rarely ever get from the iconic Verdi hero.