Cyrano de Bergerac, Royal Opera House, London

Domingo pushes back the years to keep his nose ahead of the field
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The Independent Culture

It is impossible to avoid Placido Domingo at present, with his lap of honour at the Brits underscored by his Wagner and Italian-ballad CDs, plus soft-focus interviews on the box. But the little-known opera in which Domingo has chosen to star at Covent Garden showcases him in cruelly sharp focus: not only is his voice exposed, but also the state of his physique.

Fencing at full tilt while simultaneously singing your heart out is not the kindest way to treat yourself at the ripe old age of 65.

Domingo's vehicle is Cyrano de Bergerac by Franco Alfano. Though almost nobody has heard of this Italian composer, everybody has heard his music, since his was the hand behind the completion of Turandot. Alfano's Cyrano is a beautifully crafted work, with an eloquently heroic role at its core, even if great tracts of it pastiche Debussy.

We all have an image of Cyrano in our heads - swordsman, poet, and proboscally challenged lover - and mine has hitherto been that of Gerard Depardieu, whose own substantial organ - if not preceding him by the regulation fifteen minutes - certainly put him ahead of the field.

When Domingo comes on he's unrecognisable - straggly locks, sunken cheeks, drooping beak, a drowned-rat version of the swashbuckling musketeers who throng the stage in the pullulating opening tableau of Francesca Zambello's production.

But as soon as he opens his mouth you know it's him: his voice still has that marvellous freshness and focus. And when he starts to fence and declaim, he seems deft and nimble: a theatrical illusion fostered by the deftness going on all round him.

Zambello's stage-wizardry temporarily deserts her when the Gascon cadets come on stage - a fey bunch who get their epées in a terrible tangle - but Domingo powers the central drama onwards unerringly.

His little gasps of dismay as his beloved Roxane reveals her love for Christian are oddly moving; when he takes the young stumblebum she loves in hand (nicely incarnated by Raymond Very), his magnanimity becomes heart-rending.

But the triangular love-scene which concludes the first half of the evening takes off like a rocket, as Cyrano's promptings are transmuted from conventional platitudes to words from the heart: for a few magical minutes, with Sondra Radvanovsky's warm soprano making the perfect vocal foil to Domingo's burnished timbre, and with Mark Elder conjuring ravishing sounds from the pit, Alfano's music rises to the level of vintage Verdi.

Mostly this quintessentially Gallic score meandered gracefully - much helped by Peter J Davison's handsome sets - with its emotional rhetoric understated. But when the denouement came, it rose once more to the occasion - as did Domingo.

All the mildly risible Les Mis moments elsewhere were forgotten, as, bleeding from his mortal wound, his voice, gestures and body language all bespoke the suppressed passion of a lifetime. This was high tragedy, conveyed with total conviction.

Domingo recently told this newspaper that he didn't expect to be treading the boards at 70. I would put money on him doing just that.