Washington — Pl'acido Domingo stands in front of an ominous gray backdrop and sings ``I can paint your very thoughts, your laughter'' to the lustrous brunette on stage. The celebrated Spanish tenor is singing the title role in ``Goya,'' the new Gian Carlo Menotti opera, which has its world premi`ere tomorrow in a Washington Opera performance at Kennedy Center. This is a music-only rehearsal, so Domingo is singing the role of the famous Spanish painter, Francisco Jos'e de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), in a blue business suit with a blue and purple plaid scarf. The Menotti opera is based upon the fabled, tempestuous love affair between Goya and the Duchess of Alba, supposedly the subject of his ``Maja'' portraits.
For rehearsal the glamorous duchess, Chilean mezzo-soprano Victoria Vergara, wears a dark red sweater and gray skirt. From time to time composer Menotti strolls over to the orchestra pit and talks with conductor Rafael Frubeck de Burgos.
This world premi`ere will be telecast nationally over PBS on its ``Great Performances'' series Friday, Nov. 28, at 9 p.m. But this dazzling new work, which Menotti wrote for Domingo, also has swept up Washington in a burst of Goyamania. Adding to the glittering premi`ere will be the appearance of Queen Sophia of Spain, who will watch one of her predecessors, Queen Maria Luisa (soprano Karen Huffstodt), battling it out with the duchess, her rival for Goya.
And the capital will be awash in Goya-esque cultural and social events, from an exhibition of more than 60 Goya prints at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and a show at the National Gallery consisting of Goya paintings from Spanish collections to a ``Salute to Spain'' reception and dinner at the National Press Club, as well as numerous diplomatic and private parties.
The ink was hardly dry on the opera this week, when Domingo, Menotti, and de Burgos appeared in a Washington Opera bilingual press conference at Kennedy Center. There had been some nervous laughter in the wings about whether the opera was finished yet, but Domingo reassured everyone that it was done, ``no joking.'' And Menotti shared an insight into the nature of his work with some of the final lines of the opera: ``Pity the artist's humanity, and leave him to God's perfection.''
It was Domingo who persuaded Menotti, over lunch, to write an opera about Goya for him. Menotti, whose operas include ``The Medium'' and ``The Telephone,'' hesitated because he had never written an opera with a tenor as its main character. The task presented special challenges, he felt, because of the ``intense, passionate'' nature of the tenor voice.
He found, too, that Goya was a difficult subject, because of the dualism of his nature. ``What interested me was not so much the painter [but] ... the man. He is not the romantic person that we imagine him to be. ... He was an opportunist. He was a social climber. But he also was a wonderful person.''
Menotti offered, too, an interesting symbolism for the Duchess of Alba: ``She is not so much the woman he loves as that she represents a kind of beauty that all artists love. She's a symbol of what he's tried to achieve.'' And he points to the last phrase that Domingo sings: ``Oh art, oh, beauty, my only true, my only love.''
Is there anything of Goya in Domingo? Domingo said that if he shares any traits with Goya, ``it would be my great, great love for my own country, for Spain. And second, also my great love for art, in this case, the painting combined with the music.''