It is probably not unkind to say that as Plácido Domingo is entering his seventh decade that he has reached the twilight of a singing career that has occupied all but 16 of his years. And a distinguished, remarkable career it has been, one that contains numerous milestones created on behalf of little vocal literature -- his recording of Manuel Penella's zarzuela El Gato Montés, for example -- in addition to his expected star turns in mainstream opera. One work that definitely can use some love is Ruggero Leoncavallo's symphonic poem La Nuit de mai (1895), a setting of an Alfred de Musset poem in the original French that Leoncavallo undertook through sheer love of its text, only to see its intended premiere defeated by a rift in Franco-Italian political relations. La Nuit de mai is so obscure that even Grove's mistakenly lists it as a choral work; however, it has been recorded a couple of times by undistinguished singers on European labels. By virtue of recording La Nuit de mai for Deutsche Grammophon and placing his name on the cover, Domingo has succeeded in improving the visibility of this work 1,000%. As the main work only lasts three-quarters of an hour, the disc is filled out with a selection of Leoncavallo songs and accompanist Lang Lang contributes his two most popular solo piano pieces -- "Barcarola veneziana" and "Valse mignonne" -- to round out the recital.
La Nuit de mai is certainly an interesting work; it's not at all what one would expect based on knowledge of I Pagliacci alone. The orchestration is outstanding, evocative of Berlioz and Liszt but at times nearly anticipating the approach of Mahler in particularly languid passages. The vocal writing is occasionally operatic and although the music is high-lying at points, it is a handsome match for Domingo's voice and he carries it off winningly even though the vocal solo is not continuous, nor does it necessarily dominate the proceedings. The Orchestra del Teatro di Bologna under Alberto Veronesi are not quite as sharp, colorful, and motivated as perhaps one might like, but overall it's fine -- definitely everything about this recording blows away its predecessors. The songs are recorded in the Dorothy Chandler Music Center, a venue Domingo has appeared at countless times and is performance space in which he is quite comfortable. Domingo is in fine voice; at certain points, pianist Lang Lang seems to be competing with Domingo a little bit. Gerald Moore he's not, and perhaps Lang Lang doesn't have a lot of experience accompanying singers, but he brings his usual flexibility and graciousness to the solos which well might suffer under a more seriously intended treatment. Deutsche Grammophon's La Nuit de mai makes for a nice counterpart to the collections of obscure Puccini material Domingo has also recorded, and makes clear that even this far along his path, Plácido Domingo's universe is still expanding.