Archive for September, 2004

Placido Domingo: De mi alma latina 1


PLACIDO DOMINGO: De mi alma latina I
Recorded in 1993. EMI #56368

The singer
This CD has Placido Domingo, one of the world’s leading operatic tenors, singing popular songs from Latin America. There are 33 songs, a fine selection drawn mostly from Spanish-speaking America (especially Mexico) and from the last 50 years of popular music. Thus we have standards like La flor de la canela, Vereda tropical, Perfidia, Frenesi, and others less well-known outside the Latin countries. From Brazil, there are Manhã de Carnaval and Aquarela do Brasil, sung in Portuguese. The arrangements and production are by Argentine Bebu Silvetti, who manages to conjure up a wide range of rhythms and settings. So if you are receiving guests from Latin America, this is a great disk to play in the background – it has something for everyone!

Placido Domingo was born in Madrid in 1941, son of zarzuela (Spanish light opera) performers. The family moved to Mexico when he was eight, and there he took piano lessons and became fascinated by singer/film stars such as Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante and Carlos Gardel (king of the tango). Married (unknown to his parents) at 16, separated at 17, but with a young son to rear, he early began to sing to earn his living. He joined Mexico’s National Opera in 1959, at age 18, and began a path to ever-greater achievement which continues until today. In 1961 he sang his first lead role. In 1962 he married soprano Marta Ornelas, and they both went to live and work in Tel Aviv for three years. On their return to New York, Marta gave up her career to support Placido and bring up their two children. (In the 1990s she returned to an opera career as a Director). Placido made his New York debut at the City Opera in 1965, and in 1968 made his debut at the New York Metropolitan Opera. By now he can consider the Met his home – in 35 years, he has given there 600 performances in 41 different roles. (He has opened the season more times than Caruso, the legend of operatic tenors). However, he sings in major opera houses all over the world, racking up over 3000 performances all told. In 1975 he also began to conduct – while he also manages, being today Artistic Director of the Washington Opera and of the Los Angeles Opera. He has also created Operalia, an international singing contest which helps identify and support new talent.

Perhaps what impresses me most, though, is that Placido has performed more than 120 different operatic roles – far more than any other tenor. When you consider that the singer has to learn all the music, create an interpretation, and learn all the stage movements for each production, this is a staggering number. It implies too, that he has been able to not only sing lighter operatic roles, but move to more demanding and “heavier” parts, as are found in Wagner’s operas. His biggest success is considered to be Otello in Verdi’s opera, because of his ability to embody convincingly the drama of the character.

The voice
The tenor voice is the high range of the natural male voice. The range is from about the C below middle C to the A above it, though the pros can sing a full B or C above that. The voice has to be naturally pitched high, but even so, there must be lots of muscular support from the diaphragm, while the chest throat and mouth must make a wonderfully resonant cavity, so that a rich full sound is carried up into the high notes. In opera, the tenor voice is the embodiment of heroism and youth, so it has to shine. To hear a magnificent example of Placido’s operatic singing, go to click on soundclips, and download No puede ser from La Tabernera del Puerto. Power and passion!

On this same site, his voice is described as “tightly focused yet rich in overtones, which renders the full-bodied ‘sound’ burnished and mellow at the same time”. But the requirements for an operatic singer don’t stop there. Here is a quote from fellow tenor José Carreras –

To be an [operatic] tenor today, one must be a combination of things: one must have musical intelligence, a good physical appearance and, hopefully, a charismatic stage presence. Above all, one must be an expressive singer and actor. In a way, the voice need not even be the most important thing. Of course, the voice counts for a lot, but to conjure up a vivid characterization – that’s what’s vital! ……. When all these qualities are wedded to a great voice, then one is in the presence of a great artist. And for me, Placido Domingo represents this ideal.”

So how does one do this night after night, performance after performance? Here is Placido himself – “one just has to keep the passion alive. One should always sing as if it were the first and the last time”.

The recording
It is perhaps surprising then that as in this CD, an operatic singer should be able to do a good job of singing popular song. This is because the skills which take you to the top are rather different. To be an opera singer you must have a BIG voice, able to carry over an orchestra of 80 musicians and reach into the far corners of a huge theatre – without a microphone! Audiences place emphasis on the quality of the high notes, the carrying power of the low notes, and dramatic intensity. In contrast, popular singers quite often have poorly-produced voices, which would be lost without a microphone. What carries them to success is the ability to communicate emotion, to get across the meaning, together with the originality of the material and setting. Very often too, a very sure rhythmic sense is needed, to space the words across the melody and the beat of the backing instruments.

Well, in this CD Placido sings in a scaled-down version of his voice, which is still beautifully produced and controlled, and places the words in the rhythm with a fine natural feeling, while communicating the drama and emotion of the song. My favourites are Aquellos ojos verdes, Solamente una vez, Vereda tropical, and Como ayer.

Reflecting perhaps deep cultural traits, no fewer than 18 of the 33 songs are about tragically lost love and separation…. for instance Me doy cuenta que ya es muy tarde / para encontrarla y volver a empezar / pero sé que por toda mi vida / será una herida que no cerrará. Funny but not even one Beatles song with a similar sentiment comes to mind…. Unsentimental lot, the English?

So prepare your alma latina and….Good listening!

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