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Nabucco opening night with Placido Domingo

Did the legend set an impossible standard for the NCPA?

There were obvious differences about the opening night of Nabucco, the crown jewel in the NCPA Opera Season. A packed theatre for one. A palpable excitement for another. And a hushed crowd that came largely on time and didn’t bolt for the exits as soon as the curtain fell. Better still, the few noisy patrons received angry admonitions from their seatmates – a job that usually falls to Time Out. Finally, audiences are policing themselves!

The reason, of course, was the presence of a living legend. Verdi is an outstanding composer and Nabucco is a fine work, but it was Domingo we were there to see. And the maestro did not disappoint. While no one denies China has made astonishing strides in just a few decades of intensive opera study, most of the country’s singers are of the “stand on your mark and project your voice” school; few utilise body language or even vocal variation to project character or emotion. Let’s hope they were taking notes, because Domingo was magnificent from moment one, and redefined NCPA opera with one sweep of his sword. Regal in gold brocade, as Babylonian King Nabucco he radiated strength, power and even his own light until he suffered a Lear-style breakdown and was imprisoned by his treacherous daughter. His collapse, then supplication, is heartrending; his prisoner’s tunic is truly pathetic.

While Domingo lacks the dark vocal timbre of say Yuan Chenye (Nabucco, Sunday 26), his celebrated tenor slides seamlessly into baritone, and the part, character and range are perfect. And while his formidable stage presence stood in stark contrast to the rest of the cast, some were elevated as a result. The wonderful Yang Guang in the colourless role of Fenea is underused, but Sun Xiuwei’s (Abigaille) death scene is her best work to date, and Liang Li (Zaccaria) has a voice we’ll want to hear more often. Furthermore, the normally static chorus showed definite signs of life and the orchestra was outstanding.

Domingo’s coming is both positive and negative; on the one hand, he may have set an impossible standard for the NCPA. On the other hand, this organisation knows what to look for and they learn fast. We may be seeing better opera, and soon. Hopefully, he can give some master classes before he goes.

Placido Domingo is Nabucco at NCPA Friday 24; Vladimir Stoyanov takes the role Thursday 23 and Saturday 25, and Yuan Chenye plays Sunday 26. See event details.
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