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My Night with the Doge

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Jan Younghusband Jan Younghusband | 10:59 UK Time, Monday, 12 July 2010

domingo_boccanegra_bbc.jpgLast Monday night I scrambled into my seat in the stalls at the Royal Opera House, tucked in behind a BBC camera, nervously awaiting the start of the most eagerly anticipated opera event of the year - Plácido Domingo singing the title role in Verdi's great late masterpiece, Simon Boccanegra. As the hubbub settled around me I realised that I had only heard him sing live twice in my life - the other time with my father, right here, almost in the same seat, many years ago. Thank goodness for TV!

tom_jones_bbc.jpgFor months opera fans have been on the edge of their seats as the celebrated tenor took on the challenge of singing a baritone role. When artists change direction they risk their reputation - look at the tremendous fuss surrounding Tom Jones's  (right) return to his gospel roots. The critics wait with knives sharpened, and the fans with baited breath.

It's a thrill to watch well established artists reinvent themselves - Tom's new album, Praise and Blame, is a blast; David Hockney is setting imaginations on fire creating art on an iPad. And I can say with confidence that Domingo has triumphed.

In a world obsessed with youth, how wonderful to have so much warmth, reverence and attention for a senior practitioner of his craft.

As well as recording this important event for posterity, we brought it to the homes of millions who couldn't get to Covent Garden. And we also gave them a peek behind the curtain. Backstage we followed the singers and production team through the evening to see how a great performance is achieved. And brilliant conductor (and my favourite new presenter) Antonio Pappano kindly agreed to present our coverage.

In the theatre, I was laden with cough sweets, the essential accessory of any opera goer - how many times have I sat rigid in the quiet bits with tears streaming down my face, bursting to cough just in the wrong moment?  Last time, my father hummed the whole way through much to the annoyance of the people around us - and me - but I felt I might miss the humming tonight. In Verdi's day the audience would probably be drinking champagne and gossiping throughout ...

And so it began. Luckily, sitting next to the cameras I could see the pictures - like oil paintings on the monitor.  Elijah Moshinsky's production and Michael Yeargan's designs, like Renaissance paintings were a gift for the lens.  The most difficult thing about filming opera is to have enough light for the cameras.   

But these technicalities were forgotten as one of the greatest moments I have experienced in an opera house unfolded.  When people told director Peter Brook that they loved the show he would demand to know, 'Which night?' - each is different.

On Monday I felt from the moment the orchestra struck up that the performance was on the top notch - it had the audience barely breathing. It was a night of such great intensity.

At the end the whole audience was on its feet - we had been present at a moment of history.

On Saturday night I stayed in to live it all again. 

When will we see Plácido again? Well, next up is the live opera film of Rigoletto in Mantua, on BBC Two in September, with Plácido as the Duke.  

As I left the theatre I popped into the Ladies. In the queue, the woman next to me said 'That was the best tonight wasn't it?' and then all the ladies in line said in chorus 'Yes, it was the best'.  I think Verdi would have liked that moment!  And in true Verdi tradition, I hummed the tunes in the street all the way home.

  • The picture shows Placido Domingo as Boccanegra and Ferruccio Furlanetto as Fiesco in the BBC 2 TV broadcast
  • Jan Younghusband is Commissioning Editor, Music & Events, BBC Television
  • Simon Boccanegra is available on the BBC iPlayer, until Friday 16 July


  • Comment number 1.

    Just one footnote - Placido is of course not singing the Duke in the live Rigoletto from Mantua, but continuing his adventure into baritone territory by singing Rigoletto himself ; the dastardly tenor Duke will be Vittorio Grigolo, such a hit at Covent Garden recently in Manon with the wonderful Anna Netrebko (which should ALSO have been on BBC2 and the Big Screens - the media seems to be incapable of reacting quickly to arts as opposed to sports events), and Rigoletto's daughter by Olga Peretyatko, a finalist in Placido Domingo's Operalia Competition a few years ago. They both look right AND should be able to sing the roles.

  • Comment number 2.

    So - here we are on the 6th Sep 10 & the Mantova RIGOLETTO with PD has been & gone, in my opinion, thoroughly unmemorably!

    I am 'on' this Blog because it seems to be the only BBC forum with a link to that broadcast - s here goes -

    Your BOCCANEGRA comments interest me for a start - Was PD REALLY that good in the role? Yes, the acting WAS up to his perennial high standards - a compassionate & tortured soul - & the production, music & the rest of the cast were excellent, making it a fine if not outstanding performance.

    But - this is NOT a true Verdi Baritone - not really a true Baritone of any sort, I reckon. Just listen to ........... - an endless string of illustrious names, but more of that a propos Rigoletto.

    As for "the Domingo ladies", I know them well as a result of 15 years in the 80s - 90s when I was closely associated with the 'UK PD Supporters (hate the word Fan in an opera context!) Club'. I always said they would watch, & eulogise over, a silent & pitch black stage or video if PD was reputed to be present there, in the dark! (Please do not take too much offence - any of 'you' who may read this - but there were ludicrous extremes of adulation.)

    Now - RIGOLETTO - there are 4 characters of 'dramatic force' who make or break this opera - Maddalena, Monterone, Sparafucile - all well up to scratch in this performance - & the Man, himself.

    The Duke is a dislikeable lightweight - in this case, I found it hard to accept the young (pretty voice - & 'eye candy' - YUK!) tenor as an accomplished seducer who could have his way with ANY woman - no problem, I'm sure, with a naive, vulnerable teenie (Gilda - Novikova perfect here) - but certainly not a more mature, sophisticated lady - La Contessa di Ceprano & the like?

    So to Rigoletto - all I can say is listen to and/or watch ANY of PD's (our era's) contemporaries - great interpreters of the role at their best & understand how it should REALLY be sung in order to leave you gasping with admiration & awe, truly understanding & sympathising with - & sometimes being terrified by - this wracked & tragic man - to name but a few - Gobbi, Merrill, Milnes, CAPUCILLI, BRUSON, RAWNSLEY, Nucci - even Cornell Macneil - they 'spit' fear of the curse, & scorn, bile & malice at the Courtiers & Monterone - & they THUNDER revenge in Si Vendetta - PD did NONE of this - the voice was almost mute, especially in the latter normally shattering duet.

    I have the recording from yesterday playing right now, beside me -'Cortigiani' - & I realise, more with each listening, that he is STILL singing as a TENOR - there is NOTHING of the Baritone in the voice & performance - at all!

    I have to say that this was, of dozens, the 2nd worst portrayal of Rigoletto I've ever seen & HEARD - even the Baritone of Kent Opera, way back in the 70s, was more convincing & vocally impressive - actually excellent! - I regret I forget his name & apologise!

    The only worse was the Carcassonne Festival 2009 offering - the whole thing a travesty - the soprano even tapped delicately on the tavern door (in the middle of a thunderstorm) with her wrist, presumably to avoid hurting her delicate knuckles - let alone damaging her nails!

    Finally, I am an ardent admirer of Domingo - definitely the greatest all round singing & ACTING Tenor of MY age - PLEASE, therefore, could he not, from a vocal point of view, rest on his laurels & retire gracefully as a GREAT TENOR - leave us with THAT memory & love - he has another still burgeoning musical career, even at his (our!) age.

    Enough - I hope I have not offended too many by my opinions.

    Sorry - nearly forgot - how on earth did you "go home humming the melodies" from Boccanegra? - pretty clever - there are virtually NONE therein, by Verdi standards - certainly only 2 possibly hummable ones, which I couldn't begin to remember, in a really undistinguished, sombre & sluggish work by comparison wth most of the the great Maestro's creations!


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