Nearing the end of his onstage career, a great tenor reveals that the role he has always coveted is in fact a baritone one; he persuades the world's leading houses to stage the opera for him; tickets fly from box offices sold to people unsure whether they will witness a triumph or an ambition too far. Yes, Plácido Domingo's Simon Boccanegra sounds like a vanity project, and surely of today's opera stars only Domingo could make such a project happen. Equally, only Domingo could inspire those around him to the point that his personal achievement seems only one part of a memorable ensemble performance.

At the very start of his career Domingo sang as a baritone, and in the lowest range of his voice he has always had mahogany where other tenors have chipboard. Still, he sings with a tenor's tone, and his performance as Verdi's tortured Doge is far from definitive: in fact, it turns some aspects of the role on its head. Low phrases that are meant to sound comfortable and conversational come out sounding gruff or even weedy; thoughts that should seem to cost the character some effort to articulate sail out into the auditorium with relative ease. Domingo projects Boccanegra's music into the audience with a tenor's glinting edge rather than a true baritone's heft, and the Doge is a different man as a result.

So this Boccanegra is not really what Verdi had in mind. But does that matter? Not this time. Once again, Domingo creates a convincing character on his own terms. At the end of the first act, as the Council Chamber descends into chaos around him, Domingo does little but stand and sing, but the effect is riveting. There is even a note of unexpected poignancy as we see the tousled, dashing corsair of the prologue succeeded for the main body of the opera by the much older, wiser Doge.

But the biggest cheer during the actual performance goes to Joseph Calleja, singing Domingo's old tenor role of Gabriele Adorno with an ardent intensity that caps anything else he has done here. Ferruccio Furlanetto is a luxuriously velvety Fiesco, and Jonathan Summers makes the villain Paolo into a prototype Iago. Marina Poplavskaya's passionate Amelia is another rung on her development into a leading Verdi soprano.

London is a late stop on what has been a kind of world tour for Domingo's Boccanegra, taking in Berlin, New York and Milan so far. Berlin and Milan shared a new production for the occasion. Covent Garden, however, reverts to its old Elijah Moshinsky staging, in monumental fake-marble designs by Michael Yeargan and the late Peter J Hall: not exactly exciting, but an apt enough framework for a performance with musical excitement to spare. Antonio Pappano's conducting brims over with warmth, detail and dynamism, and the orchestra is on fire for him and Domingo both.

On free big-screen relays around the UK on 13 July (details on the Royal Opera House website); at the Proms on 18 July and broadcast live on Radio 3.

Contributor

Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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