It finished fittingly, with La Scala's audience on its feet, clapping and cheering deliriously for 20 minutes as its favourite tenor tearfully acknowledged the applause and flowers rained down on him.
Forty years ago almost to the day, Placido Domingo, then a young Spanish opera singer with sideburns like Elvis Presley, set foot on the stage of the legendary Milan opera house for his first starring role there, in Verdi's Ernani. This week he returned to mark the anniversary, with a valedictory performance that had the opera buffs weeping in delight.
But this was no cruise into the sunset with the hood down. Despite the advancing years (he is 68, if you believe the official account), he tore into Wagner with Argentinian-born conductor Daniel Barenboim at the reins. The Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde went down well, but more breathtaking still – "spectacular" said the critics – was his rendition of the role of Siegmund from the first act of Wagner's Die Walküre.
One critic noted that there were moments of tiredness or prudence, where in the past the tenor might have floored the throttle. But he added that Domingo, who has done more than 3,000 performances, "still had a voice stronger than most 30-somethings".
Backstage, reliving his triumph, the great man told the correspondent of La Stampa: "Yes, it went well. But it's also thanks to this theatre. To sing at La Scala is something else. It's the quintessence of opera. This public has given me so much and I believe I've given them much as well."
The mood was nostalgic, but this was no swansong. Domingo has 45 singing and 15 conducting engagements lined up for the 2009/10 season. His friends at La Scala have not seen the last of him by any means.
As impressive as the 20-minute standing ovation was the complete absence of whistles or catcalls from La Scala's infamously hard-to-please fanatics in the audience, known as the loggionisti. Some degree of raucous booing is par for the course here. In days gone by, its severe, self-appointed critics in the upper balconies would fling risotto and salami at singers who didn't make the grade.
Dinner is no longer thrown, but the metaphorical knifes are never far away as Domingo's great rival Luciano Pavarotti found out when he was whistled off stage following a lacklustre Don Carlos in 1992 – a role considered among the most difficult in the opera.
La Scala, which has survived problems of every sort in the past ten years, is enjoying a revival. Earlier this week there were some boos for its new production of Carmen, which opened the gala season on Monday, but they were drowned out by the 14-minute ovation for its star, Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili. And the critics were ecstatic.
Adrian Hamilton: Can low notes produce high emotion?
It is typical of Placido Domingo that he should sing in Italian to a 20-minute standing ovation in Berlin a month ago and in German to a 20-minute standing ovation in Italy this week. Even more extraordinary was the fact that he was singing a baritone part in Germany – the great baritone part, indeed, of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra – and was back to the most testing of all tenor roles in a sequence of Wagnerian arias in Milan.
Going out on a low note is not unknown in opera. Sopranos do it all the time. But it's quite a thing for a tenor, let alone one as renowned as Placido Domingo. And it's also something of a risk. Opera expresses high emotion in sudden shifts of register, up and down, and Domingo is bound to find that much harder as a baritone than he did as a tenor, even if his voice has dropped with age.
But then the foremost villains in opera – from Iago to Don Giovanni – are baritones, and the devil, as we know, always has the best tunes.
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