28 September 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Karajan artists: Plácido Domingo – Karajan’s ultimate tenor

“I arrived at 10 and took my place. All of a sudden, I saw the red light next to Karajan go on. He began to conduct, and in fifty-five minutes we had finished recording the first act. ‘Maestro,’ I said, ‘I thought we were going to rehearse.’ ‘Among musicians,’ he replied, ‘rehearsal is not necessary.’ I can confirm that we were indeed together on every note.”

The singer Karajan had cast for the first time for this “Madama Butterfly” recording session in 1974 was a young Spanish tenor who was to become the most famous classical singer of our time – Plácido Domingo. It is no exaggeration to say that his work on stage and record makes him one of the most important performing artists of the 20th century. Domingo’s story shows a Karajan who is the opposite of a control-addicted autocrat but a modern conductor who told the orchestra to follow the singers and who trusted the artists he worked with:

“Never before had I worked with a conductor of that calibre without having a piano rehearsal – without even exchanging a word about the role. I appreciated the great compliment he was paying me.”

The second encounter between Karajan and Domingo was a “Don Carlo” production with Mirella Freni, Christa Ludwig, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Piero Cappuccilli and José van Dam in Salzburg in 1975. On this photo Karajan and his costume designer Georges Wakhevitch are checking Domingo and his costume for the title role – with the support of both Karajan’s daughters as stand-ins. Alongside the “Don Carlo” performances, Domingo performed in a concert of Verdi’s Requiem.

Domingo was surprised and glad that the rehearsals took place entirely on the stage of the Festspielhaus, not on a rehearsal stage, and the costumes were available from the very first day, not only for the last rehearsals. On the other hand, he wasn’t very happy with Karajan’s custom of using a recording for the rehearsals. He hadn’t made that recording and so he had to listen to someone else’s interpretation for weeks. Karajan’s staging he found “almost always excellent.”

“Karajan knew that I was interested in conducting. At a stage rehearsal for ‘Don Carlo’ singing ‘Elisabetta, sei tu, bella adorata’ I spread my arms. Karajan stopped me and said: ‘Plácido, the arms are only for conducting!’”

Plácido Domingo was also Manrico in an “Il Trovatore” series filmed at the Vienna State Opera in May 1978. This series was the last occasion Karajan conducted Verdi’s masterpiece and the last time he performed live with Domingo.

Karajan was one of the best Puccini conductors and this recording is certainly one of his finest. He never performed Puccini’s last and unfinished opera “Turandot” live and he recorded it just this one time in 1981 with Katia Ricciarelli in the title role. The success of the album is of course partly due to Plácido Domingo’s performance as Kalaf. Karajan originally planned to make a film in the Forbidden City in Beijing but ultimately the Chinese government withheld its permission. Karajan’s “masterly handling of the score (Gramophone)” and the Vienna Philharmonic playing like velvet and silk make this set immensely enjoyable. This photo shows Karajan and Domingo with Barbara Hendricks (Liù).

Karajan died when he was preparing the stage production of “Un Ballo in Maschera” in July 1989 for the Salzburg Festival. But his only recording of this Verdi opera with Domingo, Josephine Barstow, Leo Nucci and the Vienna Philharmonic had already been made in February 1989. As usual Karajan produced the studio recording first and used it for his stage production. In this case, the recording is available but Karajan died before he could finish the rehearsals and conduct the live performances at the Salzburg Festival. The cast and director John Schlesinger stayed as Karajan had chosen them, while Sir Georg Solti stood in on the rostrum. Domingo told Karajan’s biographer Richard Osborne:

“I was surprised and impressed that what mattered to him was not precision but expression: the flow of the music, the expression of inner feeling. He simply let you sing and interfered only when you needed help. I learned so much from watching him during those sessions. That it was happening so late in both our careers has always been for me a source of deep regret.”

In his memoirs in 1983 (when Karajan’s last “Don Giovanni” production was still to come), Domingo recalled that in a TV interview in 1980, he announced that although he was a tenor, he intended to sing Don Giovanni, a baritone part, one day. The next day, he received a telegram from Karajan: If Domingo was serious about that, Karajan would do “Don Giovanni” with him. In Salzburg in 1983. Domingo replied he was seriously interested but not before 1986.
As we know, it didn’t happen. Karajan’s Don Giovanni in 1985 was Samuel Ramey and Domingo (according to his homepage) has never sung the part in public – so far…


We’ve prepared playlists with Karajan and Plácido Domingo. Listen to them here.

Plácido Domingo: “My First Forty Years”, George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Limited, London. 1983

Richard Osborne: “Karajan. A Life in Music” Chatto & Windus, London. 1998

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