On the Sublime

“But his voice filled my spirit with a strange, sweet sound. In that night there was music in my mind. And through music my soul began to soar! And I heard like I’ve never heard before…”

Last night, I had a rare opportunity to witness what people may call the sublime.  Per Wikipedia, “[i]n aesthetics, the sublime (from the Latin sublīmis) is the quality of greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical, aesthetic, spiritual or artistic. The term especially refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.” While I’m prone to hyperbole on occasion (in fact, I rather enjoy it most of the time), I do believe that I did, in fact, serve witness to true operatic greatness last night at the Kennedy Center, where I saw Plácido Domingo perform Oreste in Iphigenie en Tauride.

I know, Dear Reader, that I needn’t waste your time telling you that a man who’s had such a famously vast and storied career (134 roles, 3,500+ performances, 12 Grammy’s, 2 Emmy’s, and a partridge in a pear tree) is “great”.  Yet I believe there is a true disconnect between accepting that a person is great at face-value, and truly understanding it beyond the celebrity hype machine and reviews of trusted critics and scholars. I’ve known for more than 20 years that this man has a gift, a talent far beyond those of his peers. There’s a reason why he was part of The Three Tenors, a group famous for being the best of the best. Even so, I didn’t expect to come away from this performance with the insight into the man and his gift that I feel I now have.

The opera in question is an emotional piece by Gluck that only came back into relevance around 2007. One of the many qualities I admire in Maestro Domingo has been his dedication to expanding the repertoire and knowledge of your everyday opera connoisseur. His goal as General Director was not to produce a season stacked with the classics (Carmen, Turandot, Rigoletto, etc.) but to introduce his audience to the lesser-known operas, and in so doing, revalidate these pieces as legitimate and essential elements of the operatic canon.

This particular opera reflected Gluck’s methodology of placing the music and the narrative on equal aesthetic and dramatic footing. He’s credited with reforming opera and returning it to a more dramatic and passionate art form by reconciling the score with its subject matter, to more effectively communicate the message and themes of the opera, rather than one coming into conflict with the other. This emphasis on the passionate and dramatic made for a perfect vehicle for one of Maestro’s final performances with the Washington National Opera (WNO).

As he has aged, he’s acknowledged the difficulties of performing at the same level year after year, decade after decade. He’s therefore chosen roles in which he can further develop his lower register, rather than straining to hit the notes of his youth. I don’t feel this refreshing expression of maturity should be taken for granted; he chooses to test himself in new territories instead of refusing to accept the fact that time marches on, and even the most powerful vocal cords fall prey to age and decades of near constant use. Be that as it may, the man I heard last night had nothing to fear. On the contrary, he assured this opera goer that he can never be replaced, nor fade from our memory.

This particular role, that of the tormented son of a murdered father, Oreste, would probably not be considered a showstopper. It lacks the memorable arias made famous by Pavarotti or the dazzle and flash of a Don Jose. The power lay not in the part, but in the man. When he arrived on stage, the usual white noise that accompanies a performance fell silent. You could almost hear the audience hold its breath, eagerly awaiting his first notes. And then…he sang.

Those moments of breathless delight occurred again and again, with every musical exchange in which he took part. Oreste’s companion, Pylade, was sung by a very accomplished tenor, a man whom you could tell will go far in his career. Technically, his voice was perfect— pitch, tone, power— it was all there, and you marveled at his control, his range and his technique. But then he sang… He sang…and you could hear the difference between the excellent and the truly sublime.

Gentle Reader, I wish you could have heard what I heard. It’s difficult to describe, and would be so even if I had limitless space in which to expound upon its merit. This quality, this indescribable, preternatural beauty, warmth, and power to his voice does not come across completely in his recorded performances; it must be experienced live to be truly believed. Technical perfection can be achieved over time, but that extra quality of the voice that makes it transcendent is more difficult to attain. Moments came and went where you heard voices, beautiful voices singing beautiful words, and you smiled in tranquil enjoyment of the beauty before you. Suddenly, you’re shocked into consciousness, like a glass of water to the face. It’s as if his voice shocked you into life itself, pulling a gauzy film away from your eyes.

It was, in no uncertain terms, a shock to the soul: an epiphany, when you understand that some are blessed with divine gifts and are rightfully treated as something beyond great. To say he deserved the instantaneous ovation he received is an understatement. To say he’s appreciated and will be missed at the WNO would also count as redundant. During intermission, my husband and I went up to the Box Tier to sign a commemorative scroll to be presented to Maestro as a gift upon his departure from Washington. I take some pleasure in thinking that our humble message is but one of hundreds thanking him for his contributions to the world of opera, and will serve as a reminder as to how many lives he’s touched through his inspirational performance and judicious and influential administration.


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