Classical: He came, he sang, he swaggered

WHAT IS Zarzuela? Etymologically, a bramble patch. Historically, it was a 17th-century royal hunting lodge outside Madrid. Musically, it's a sub-operatic art form which, outside its native Spain, has never been given its due. Now it is also Placido Domingo's vehicle for scaling new heights of stardom. He has made records of it, and he's driving home his advantage with a tour. On Sunday night - for an audience who greeted him with something between an excited buzz and a religious hush - he briefly parked that vehicle at the Barbican.

And in the triumphal progress, he's left nothing to chance. "Veni, vidi, vici: the conquests of Placido Domingo" was the heading on the document pressed into my hands at the door. This detailed his multiple exploits - singing, conducting, and directing all round the world, while also running his own personal opera competition. Not bad for a spring chicken of 58.

From the moment he strode on stage we were compelled - with a man of such confident charisma, there is no other word - to admire his voice. It's all still there, served up with the trademark "swagger". It helped, moreover, that on this occasion he had two young protegees in tow: soprano Ainhoa Arteta, and mezzo Cecilia Diaz. Whipping briskly through a series of solos and duets, he was blissfully in his element.

And so he should have been, for this was the music his parents sang, and with which he grew up. But it has to be said that the antiseptic vastness of the Barbican was completely at variance with its requirements. Zarzuela had its heyday in Madrid while Offenbach was wowing Paris and Gilbert and Sullivan were doing the same in London, and it needs intimacy and atmosphere. It's about dramatic thrills and spills; it's not about great voices. In music like this, a voice like Domingo's comes across as merely efficient.

But this was a skilfully chosen programme. Two of the arias were gems, and everything was shot through with a sun-soaked expansiveness, much helped by the fact that the Royal Opera orchestra was conducted by Miguel Roa, music director of the Teatro de la Zarzuela in Madrid. And, if Ms Arteta's voice did not measure up to her stunning looks, Ms Diaz proved herself a star in the making, delivering an aria by Ruperto Chapi with Verdian grace and force.

I left to file this piece before the encores and the autographs, but a point was clearly made. Zarzuela may be "dead" in that all its composers are dead, but it's definitely something which our own companies should look into.