Pagliacci, Royal Opera House, London

Domingo's finest hour almost eclipsed by an excited donkey
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The Independent Culture

Well, the donkey stole it. He'd done his walk-on part, but he wasn't going to be fobbed off. Not with Placido Domingo and Angela Gheorghiu hogging the stage, and Parky out there in the audience.

There's a riveting moment in Act I of Pagliacci (The Clowns) when Canio, the jealous husband, and his wife and protégé Nedda - who's poised to perish in a very nasty bit of marital brouhaha - have the nearest they get to a love duet. Very soft.

And that's when our four-legged friend decided his moment had come.

Maybe one of the kids (wonderful ones, in this busy Zeffirelli production) had pulled his tail. Maybe Harlequin, or that beefy Dmitri Hvorostovsky who sings her lover on the side - the affair with Silvio that brings Gheorghiu to her sorry end - trod on his trotter. Anyway, that was it. Definitely not placid. He hee'd and he hawed. Quite some instrument, that. Which only goes to show: don't put your donkey on the stage, Mrs Worthington.

This was a good show, but only gelled towards the end. Zeffirelli, who designed as well as directed, saturates the stage with vast, dirty, Italianate tenements that merge Robert de Niro's shady prowlings in Taxi Driver with some Fellini-style urban freneticism from Terry Edwards' vocal but slightly sprawling chorus.

Not much room on the stage for old Placido when he appears, tumbrel-borne, rearstage. At the outset he sounds thin, and looks willowy, and rather silly in his white gear. Only when he gets his clown outfit sticky and the make-up dripping, 90 minutes into the show, does his Canio come anywhere near as daunting as his understudy, Dennis O'Neill.

But for all the cheerful high jinks - the fire-eaters and unicyclists and confetti throwing, and the two best arias, arguably not Domingo's, but Silvio's (Hvorostovsky) and Beppe's (the impressive young St Petersburg tenor, Daniil Shtoda, as Harlequin - it was the ending that counted.

Pagliacci builds, inexorably, towards its bloody climax with the grim inevitability of Oedipus Rex. Indeed, Leoncavallo composed an Oedipus opera himself, and you can see why. Domingo's best touch in Act I was his face: subtly shifting contours of inscrutable distaste and excruciating pain. At the end, for just five minutes, he gave us the full works. And I guess that's what you go for.