First Night: Placido Domingo Celebration, Royal Opera House, London

A homage to a great who still gives it his all

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The Independent Culture

The Royal Opera House firmly declared it as a "celebration". It had been billed formally as a "gala" to mark 40 years since Placido Domingo first sang in the House. But to the audience who crowded in, paying up to £200 a ticket for an evening that was sold out within hours of becoming available, this was an act of devotion for a singer, now 70, whom many regard as the greatest opera performer, and certainly its greatest actor, since the war, as he reaches the end of his career.

They turned out if not exactly in their finery then at least in their best. Covent Garden, which has become more used to jeans and trainers than evening dresses and jewels and has reworked its magical Hamlyn Hall into an overcrowded canteen, was back in style again. When one spied a young man in an evening jacket trimmed in real ermine, one knew this was an "occasion".

And so it proved. Domingo may have lost the full throat of youth. More contentiously he has made a virtue out of necessity as his voice has deepened in age, turning to baritone roles after a lifetime as one the opera stage's greatest tenors (although he did, admittedly, attempt to start out as a baritone originally before being told to go up the register). "So the singing isn't perfect," he commented when taking his first baritone role, "but opera is drama."

Which is precisely the point with this performer.

Thankfully, the Royal Opera House chose to celebrate his career not with an evening of arias, duets and endless applause but with three acts from Verdi's most powerful works in which Domingo could – and did – show his commanding stage presence both as a tenor, in 'Otello', and as a baritone in 'Rigoletto' and 'Simon Boccanegro'.

It started, as it originally been intended to finish (problems with setting up the scenery or for an artistic reason?) in the role for which he was most famous: Otello. A slightly downbeat start in a way although redeemed by Domingo's ability to switch from the vengeful to the confused and finally to a broken spirit as he reached his last aria in this final act. With Act III of Rigoletto we were in the full blast of Verdi at his richest. Domingo in the main role wasn't able to develop the depths of character and emotion that he might have shown in the earlier scenes with his daughter and in his discovery of her at the court, but he played it darkly and the supporting cast, particularly Francesco Meli, did him proud.

So finally into the last act of "Simon Boccanegro", Verdi's darkest and, for some (including myself), finest work. It's a part that is long on the lower register and shows up some of Domingo's weaknesses in the baritone role, but not his dramatic sense. No-one dies like Placido Domingo and, in this case (in a truly terrible production by Ian Judge) he actually swallow dives to his demise in the arms of his daughter.

They don't make them like that any more. And more's the pity. Domingo belongs to Grand Opera in a way that few male singers do today. He's also a real trouper in a way that virtually none are.

He doesn't do tantrums and last minute illnesses. What he does do is totally committed performance. Last night he did it again. An evening as much of Verdi's music as the singing, driven (we are lucky to have him) by Antonio Pappano's tremendous feel for drama in music as conductor. But, in the end, the occasion was an act of homage to a man who, even at 70, still gives us his all.

'Placido Domingo Celebration', last night and 30 October. Royal Opera House

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