CLASSICAL MUSIC: Domingo conducts Tosca; Royal Opera House, London

Click to follow
So you thought Solti was a loud conductor? Well, you should have heard Domingo on Monday night. Indeed you probably would have heard him anywhere within a five-mile radius of Covent Garden if the wind had been right.

Taking issue with a performance of Tosca on the grounds that, for well over half the time, the orchestra was ridiculously loud for the voices might seem a poor-spirited response to a one-off occasion of much interest. Here, after all, was Plcido Domingo conducting the opera in which, almost to the day, he made his Royal Opera debut as Cavaradossi 25 years ago. For sure, his way with the score was never dull, the pace was smart, the waves rolled seriously high. And meanwhile, a powerfully larynxed trio of lead singers were swamped one after the other by an exasperatingly (and most untypically) noisy orchestra.

Not just the lead singers, either. At the end of Keith Olsen's lusty rendering of Cavaradossi's Recondita armonia, the accompanying asides of Jeremy White's Sacristan were inaudible from a fair vantage-point midway back in the stalls. On and on it went like that. James Morris, the Scarpia, found the tempo of his Te Deum being pressed so hard that conductor and orchestra were consistently ahead of the singer. Not, surely, a situation that Domingo himself, on-stage, would readily put up with. One of the great perorations in all opera duly went for next to nothing. And when Morris's mighty baritone, of all voices, sounds on the verge of being sung out in the final stages of Act 2, something has to be wrong.

Simple insensitivity on the podium, then, from one of the century's great singers? Not necessarily. It sounded more a case of a tenor of Domingo's class being irreversibly ingrained with the instinct to take the initiative while everyone else follows, and misplaced adrenalin doing to the rest. Whatever the reason, there are worlds more light and shade in Puccini's masterly score than you'd have guessed from this thoroughly rough night out in Italy.

In the end, it was a singers' night in an unexpectedly traditional sense. Galina Gorchakova will probably never develop the ideal spinto blend of subtlety and fire-power that the role of Tosca demands, but how many sopranos ever do? Meanwhile, she acted credibly while singing with a control and force that were each admirable.

Olsen's Cavaradossi, visually garnished with large slices of ham, rose decently to the role's vocal challenge. And Morris's reputation as a classy but comatose performer was confounded by a portrayal of Scarpia that convinced at every point, while showing that there's far more scope for truly and effectively singing the part than legend would have it. Andrew Sinclair's staging was secure enough (though nought out of 10, I'm afraid, to Gordon Sandison's Sciarrone for opening one of the Palazzo Farnese's windows after the chorus could already be heard singing through it). Renzo Mongiardino's set designs seem to be mellowing like vintage port. Now 36 years old, they just look better than ever.

Malcolm Hayes