Plácido Domingo as Gianni Schicchi and Craig Colclough as Simone (Craig T. Mathew/LA Opera)
If the average person is ever asked the name of a modern opera star, there are only a few that mainstream audiences would recognize. Luciano Pavarotti is undoubtably one. Renée Fleming is another. The third and final opera singer to achieve popular success has to be Plácido Domingo, who teamed with Pavarotti and José Carreras to form the Three Tenors, the voices behind the best-selling classical album of all time.
Domingo, the Spanish-born and Mexican-raised 74-year-old singer, is the main attraction at the debut of “Gianni Schicchi” and “Pagliacci” at the Sept. 17 opening of the 30th season of the L.A. Opera, located at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. This is not just a double-bill of operas, it is also a double-bill of duties for Domingo, who performs the leading role in the first opera and conducts the second.
What is surprising about the staging of “Schicchi” and “Pagliacci” is that its creative team includes not just the veteran of the opera, but several names better associated with Hollywood than with the fine arts. The staging of “Schicchi” is by Woody Allen, appropriate considering the comic subject matter yet still somewhat amusing based on the director’s well-worn shtick of skewering those who appreciate opera and the like. Still, staging an opera by Giacomo Puccini is not quite as ironic as Allen covering Richard Wagner; that seems about as likely as Allen having a surprise reconciliation with Mia Farrow.
It is less puzzling that the staging of “Pagliacci” is by Franco Zeffirelli. The Italian director, whose counterculture-flavored Romeo and Juliet earned him an Oscar nomination nearly 50 years ago and started a long-lasting Hollywood career, has shifted between film directing and theatrical stagings, along with a stint as a senator for a center-right party in the Italian Parliament. Zeffirelli’s history with the opera is not just long-lasting, it includes work with the late Maria Callas. Zeffirelli even staged the last performance that Callas ever gave of her legendary “Norma.”
Domingo does not appear in the second opera on the bill, “Pagliacci,” instead choosing the off-stage role as the orchestra conductor, yet this opera by Ruggero Leoncavallo hardly requires a star name for popular appeal. Although this is the only Leoncavallo opera to be regularly staged, the story of a tragic clown has permeated popular culture in a way that only a few operas have. “Seinfeld,” a sitcom by a comic whose popular influences were rarely less mainstream than Superman, included references to the 1892 opera.
Los Angeles has been the center of popular culture since the rise of Hollywood a century ago, but the LA Opera does prove that the finer arts still have a place within the city. “Gianni Schicchi” and “Pagliacci” are hardly Schoenberg, though. Their mix of one of the world’s few household names in the opera world and staging by two of Hollywood’s acclaimed directors is the perfect blend of the highbrow and the populist.
“Gianni Schicchi” and “Pagliacci” run now through Oct. 3. For tickets and more information, visit laopera.org.