As it turns out, I think it's even better than most of the reviews I read about it claimed. Perhaps that's one of the benefits of seeing the last performance instead of the first- at the end of a run everything is in place, just clicking, and the cast last night had an easy air about it, as if they were sending off something the were all proud to have been a part of and wanted to make this last one the best.
Placido Domingo's 134th role as the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is the big draw here, but the night really belongs to Charles Castronovo- and Domingo was very gracious to make his curtain calls at the end in hand-in-hand with Castronovo. While everything about this opera works- it's these two who are its heart and soul, along with some incredibly beautiful music.
I'll skip the story/plot- you probably already know it anyway, and just relate what worked so well on the stage, which was, for me at least, an unexpected delight. First of all from the primary to the minor roles, this was extremely well cast. Catán wrote the part of Neruda with Domingo in mind, so it's no surprise he inhabits this role to an extent that will make it a challenge to whoever follows him in it. Domingo's voice isn't as large as it has been recently- here he sings at the same volume as everyone else instead of seemingly effortlessly soaring over them, and I couldn't tell whether Domingo was doing this intentionally or if this was just the inevitable signs of a man his age, but there was no apparent attempt on his part to ever be more than part of a tight ensemble that had a story to tell. Not an easy feat when you're probably aware that all eyes are on you whenever you're onstage.
Castronovo is brilliant. As his character develops and grows in spirit and confidence, so does his voice. During the final duet performed by the two tenors, Castronovo's Mario has grown to where he shares the stage with Domingo as an equal- as a character and a tenor. It was one of the most moving moments I've witnessed in an opera.
Christina Gallardo-Domás' turn as Neruda's wife Matilde was perfect. The physical chemistry between her and Domingo was wholly believable, and when she exclaims late in the opera that their time on the island of Cala di Sotto was reinvigorating to their love and happiness it's easy to believe. It's not a large role, but it is a significant one, and Gallardo-Domás leaves an indelible impression.
Amanda Squitieri's Beatrice Russo was another revelation. It's easy to see why Mario falls in love with this beguiling woman. I'd like to see her and Guillardo-Domás as Mimi and Musetta. And Castronovo would be a great Rodolfo.
The rest of the cast was fine as well, but everything about this production was done at the finest level. A brilliant, beautiful yet simple set. Gorgeous use of imagery, perfect costumes and Grant Gershon led the LAO orchestra through the graceful score with clarity and richness. I've read a lot of commentary comparing the score to Puccini, but I hear his influence primarily in the vocal writing. The music reminded me more of Strauss, and oddly enough, Janacek in Cunning Little Vixen mode (one of the most joyous scores ever composed). Beautiful.