Seventy years on from its premiere in Munich, the Royal Opera now presents the first fully professional British staging of Hans Pfitzner's epic opera Palestrina. Pfitzner himself wrote his own libretto about the Renaissance composer who, traumatised by the death of his wife, abandoned composition, only for Pope Pius IV to then ban the ornate and complex music of the kind penned by Palestrina. It takes a visitation of Palestrina's late wife's spirit, a massed gathering of the entire Council of Trent and a Papal disposition before harmony is restored. With a running time of some four and a half hours, Palestrina is perhaps the last truly massive affirmation of a Romantic operatic aesthetic, and probably the last great opera written in the shadow of Wagner. Its somewhat philosophical and "Germanic" subject matter, about the sacred power of music redeeming a decadent culture, might explain why Palestrina has never been professionally mounted in Britain before. On the other hand, it might simply have to do with the huge orchestral and vocal forces involved. There are no fewer than 34 named singing roles, each of them requiring considerable stage presence to animate larger-than-life characters. American tenor Thomas Moser takes the title role and heads a prestigious ensemble of primarily male voices, including Thomas Allen, Kim Begley, Stafford Dean, Alan Held, Gwynne Howell, Robin Leggate, Sergei Leiferkus, Robert Tear, Kurt Rydl and David Wilson-Johnson. Christian Thielemann conducts what should be a major and perhaps once-in-a-lifetime event in the operatic calendar.

Duncan Hadfield

`Palestrina' is at the Royal Opera House, London WC2 (0171-304 4000) on 1, 6, 10, 15 and 19 Feb