Elegant in white tie and tails, beaming with joy and leading an energetic performance, Plácido Domingo did not look like someone who had dragged himself out of a sick bed. A lesser mortal would have stayed under the covers in London, where Domingo was recuperating in the middle of a short run in La traviata at the Royal Opera House. But there was a special occasion in Prague: a celebration of Mozartʼs birthday at the theater where the composer conducted the premiere of Don Giovanni in 1787.

Plácido Domingo conducts the Prague National Theatre Orchestra © Radovan Šubín
Plácido Domingo conducts the Prague National Theatre Orchestra
© Radovan Šubín

Domingo was smitten when he first visited the Estates Theater six years ago, and has been back twice since – first to conduct two anniversary performances of Don Giovanni in 2017, and then for the birthday concert, which has been an annual event there since 2009. The program and performers change every year, and on this occasion Domingo led the National Theater Orchestra and four singers: Romanian soprano Adela Zaharia and Italian baritone Simone Alberghini, both laureates of his Operalia competition, and Czech singers Štěpanká Pučálková (mezzo) and Petr Nekoranec (tenor).

Though not performed chronologically, the program offered a smart overview of the beauty, drama and innovations Mozart brought to opera, from Mitridate, re di Ponto (1770) through La clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte (both 1791). A selection of four overtures offered the standard recital breaks between arias that showcased the composerʼs technical prowess and insightful characterizations, along with some superb singing.

Simone Alberghini and Štěpánka Pučálková © Radovan Šubín
Simone Alberghini and Štěpánka Pučálková
© Radovan Šubín

Alberghini, who has developed a wide-ranging international career since winning the second Operalia competition in 1994, showed a strong command of the Don Giovanni role with a solo aria (“Fin chʼhan dal vino”) and in a duet with Pučálková (“Là ci darem la mano”). In both, there was a smoldering intensity with just a hint of menace. He brought the same depth to lighter characters like Count Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro and Guglielmo in Così fan tutte, adding touches of levity and lyricism.

Zaharia was the surprise winner of the 2017 Operalia competition, but it was easy to see why. She has an exceptionally clear voice and fluid style, tossing off brilliant coloratura runs with precision and flair. An impressive dramatic range also makes her a dynamic duet partner, coyly scheming with Pučálková in a lustrous “Prenderò quel brunettino” from Così fan tutte, and discovering her slain father with a fiery anguish alongside a soothing Nekoranec in Don Giovanni.

Already well-known in his homeland, Nekoranec is the walking definition of a rising star, with a voice and stage presence well beyond his tender age of 26. And he left no doubt about his technical skills in his very first aria, the notoriously difficult “Se di lauri il crena adorno” from Mitridate, negotiating the octave-and-a-half jumps and hitting the high Cs with aplomb. Idamanteʼs lament “Ah, qual gelido orror” from Idomeneo highlighted his natural vibrato and rich, warm timbre, leaving a lasting emotional impression.

Petr Nekoranec and Adela Zaharia © Radovan Šubín
Petr Nekoranec and Adela Zaharia
© Radovan Šubín

Pučálková has also sung Idamante, along with enough other Mozart roles to earn an invitation to Mozartwoche in Salzburg next year. Her dusky voice lent drama to Sestoʼs “Parto, parto” from La clemenza, and she took full advantage of Dorabellaʼs anguished “Smanie implacabili” from Così, stirring up a brief but gripping emotional storm.

Domingo prefers a brisk pace, and what appeared at first glance to be an overly lengthy program turned out to be exhilarating, a kaleidoscope of sound and sensations that never lingered in one place too long. Given the quality of the singing, it was easy to overlook the support he provided from the orchestra – vibrantly colored, beautifully balanced, unfailingly enthusiastic. Even the overtures were filled with anticipation and excitement.

At a brief appearance after the concert, Domingo acknowledged that illness had almost prevented him from attending, and marveled at the “circumstances and destiny” that led him to follow in Mozartʼs footsteps twice in a year and a half. He will be back in the summer, when he is bringing Operalia to Prague, a city he praised as “rich in culture as very few.” Judging by the reactions during and after the performance, Prague feels the same way about him.

****1