Placido Domingo Holds His Own in Thaïs

SpainSpain Massenet, Thaïs: Seville’s Symphony Orchestra, The Maestranza Chorus,Pedro Halffter (conductor), Seville’s Teatro de la Maestranza, 31.10.2012 (JMI)

Thaïs: Nino Machaidze
Athanael: Plácido Domingo
Nicias: Antonio Gandía
Palemon: Stefano Palatchi
Myrtale/Albine: Marifé Nogales
Crobyle: Micaëla Oeste
Servant: David Lagares


Goteborg Opera and Finnish National Opera.
Direction: Nicola Raab
Sets and Costumes: Johan Engels
Lighting: Linus Fellbom

Nino Machaidze (Thaïs) and Placido Domingo ( Athanael) Picture © Teatro de la Maestranza, Seville.

It is now 13 years since Placido Domingo sang in Seville when he was the protagonist in Massenet’s Le Cid. Surprisingly perhaps, he returns when the financial circumstances of the Maestranza theater are very different from last time, and in a baritone role in a different Massenet opera. His comeback in Seville was billed lately as part of the so-called Placido Domingo Festival, although it is only about a month ago since this title was announced. Before that, Superman’s presence was simply listed as part of the regular opera season.

Final del formulario

Thaïs is not a popular opera, and its performances have always been based on the attractiveness of the singer in the title role – who usually leaves everyone else in the shade, including the monk Athanaël. However, this time Superman had decided to sing the monk himself, which doubtless brought the theater-going public under the spell of his name, regardless of whoever Thaïs might have been. Domingo’s popular appeal continues to be extraordinary but then we have to concede that his exceptional career really does justify every bit of that.

For such an evidently important occasion, the Maestranza – or rather Placido Domingo himself – decided to use the well-known Nicola Raab production that was seen at Valencia last March which I reviewed here.

Musical direction was entrusted to Pedro Halffter, the musical and artistic director of the Maestranza. It is unusual to see Mr. Halffter conducting an opera of this kind and so, within a sound reading I missed some of the lightness that is necessary for this music. While tempi also seemed somewhat slow on occasion, under Mr. Halffter’s baton both orchestra and chorus did generally offer very good performances.

The young (29) Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze has many of the qualities required to be an exceptional Thaïs and I must say at once that it would be hard to find a more compelling performer on stage than she is. With a beautiful appearance together with exceptional stage skills, her performance is in a real sense unbeatable. Vocally, she is a light-lyric soprano with a good technique and excellent expressiveness. Her timbre is not altogther uniformly attractive but she knows how to sing piano and she has no problems at the high notes. Against that, I thought that Ms Machaidze was rather too weak in the lower vocal register, which is quite prominent in this role and I was worried by an incipient – or something rather more than that – vibrato at the top for her voice, although this became more controlled as the performance went on. Her performance was far superior however to that by Malin Byström in Valencia and she earned the entirely justified triumph of the night. Quite rightly there was nobody in the cast as happy as she was at the final bows.

Naturally enough, Placido Domingo was the biggest attraction for the public and he did not disappoint. There are two things that seem quite miraculous in this artist, considering that he is almost 72. On the one hand his vocal freshness is infinitely better that anything we might expect from somebody of his age. And secondly, he is in enviable physical shape, moving around the stage as if he were 20 or 30 years younger. In purely vocal terms it is still clear that Placido Domingo is not a baritone. No tenor becomes a baritone simply by losing his top notes and Domingo is easily clever enough not to artificially force his natural voice. There are moments – the first act quartet for instance – where he is not very comfortable with the lower tessitura, and one might like a darker and powerful timbre at some other times, but the artist is always present. By comparison with his performance in Valencia 8 months ago, this time I found him more familiar with the character – the prompter could not be heard – but possibly less convincing in his interpretation. Although the audience showed their love and admiration unequivocally for him, Mr. Domingo’s face didn’t seem too happy at the final bows.

Antonio Gandía was a good interpreter of Nicias, much better than Paolo Fanale at Valencia. He offered a very pleasant voice, singing with gusto, but with slightly restricted volume. Stefano Palatchi is sadly now a shadow of his former self, but he was still a serviceable Palemon.

In the supporting cast, the best singer was Marifé Nogales, doubling as Myrtale and Albine; this was possibly the best performance I can remember from her. I did find it difficult to understand the presence of the beautiful American soprano Micaëla Oeste as Crobyle however. Do we really need to go to the other side of the ocean to find a good interpreter of this small role? ‘The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.’

The theatre was fully sold out. The audience was very warm toward all the artists, reserving the biggest ovations and cheers for Nino Machaidze and Placido Domingo, in that order.

José Mª. Irurzun