From Wagner to West Side Story, in a few easy steps – Dubai Opera's grand opening leapt centuries, continents and styles in a thrilling pick n' mix of melody likely to win over the sternest sceptic.
The star attraction was of course Plácido Domingo who, whatever you read, still sounds fantastic at 75, his trembling tenor reverberating gloriously throughout the magnificent auditorium.
The “king of opera” made a breath-taking entrance with Giordano’s Nemico Della Patria, from Andrea Chenier – one of the meaty baritone roles adopted late in his career – theatrically wrenching the scorched words of French revolutionary leader Carlo Gérard.
This was one of just three solos in the main programme, with Domingo – likely in the preservation of those precious chords – sharing the stage amiably with frequent collaborator Ana María Martínez, the Puerto Rican soprano who was plucked for notoriety after winning a top prize at Domingo’s Operalia competition in 1995.
The first half climaxed with a pair of heart-melting Verdi duets, from blockbusters La Traviata and Il Trovatore. The pair's two decades of shared stage experience together was tantalisingly translucent, exuding a playful chemistry while acting out a misunderstood lovers' spat. And having released a boxset of every Verdi tenor aria ever composed, it is safe to say Domingo was on long-conquered terrain.
This more-ish vocal tasting menu turned sweeter still after the interval, with a polished rundown of Broadway tunes. Domingo swung surprisingly – but hardly tested his chords – with the jazzy lilt of Some Enchanted Evening, from Rodgers's South Pacific, while Martínez went all Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady's I Could Have Danced All Night.
But the showstopper was Tonight from West Side Story – book your tickets for the full show at Dubai Opera in February – that playful Bernstein duet, steeped in the repeated proclamation "Maria!", incidentally this soprano's middle name.
These courses of vocal gastronomy were periodically punctuated with palette cleansing instrumental showcases from Fondazione Teatro Lirico Giuseppe Verdi, the 65-piece visiting orchestra who will be in residence for the opening six nights. Under the baton of Eugene Kohn, the Trieste ensemble presented Dubai Opera's first symphonic tests in eclectic readings including a Sound of Music orchestral medley and the stately programme opening, Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg overture. That's right – take a moment to consider the clear intent made here, the first notes heard in the venue from the mind of opera's great late-Romantic maverick.
After closing the programme with the solo vocal gymnastics of calling card Sorozábal's No Suede Ser – Domingo's tremoring vibrato virtuosically echoing over staccato orchestral stabs – the legend returned to the stage to make an impassioned speech about the significance of such a monumental opening, which will serve generations to come in this "great city".
But it was Domingo’s casual, throwaway opening which mattered most, when he assured the audience his unamplified speaking voice would be heard by all, because of the auditorium’s “great acoustics”. A thumbs up from where it matters most. This was not just a big name, but a big day for Dubai, and Domingo’s warm-hearted declaration meant as much as the beautiful music he provided us with. Well, nearly.
Visibly beaming in the spotlight of the occasion, what followed was a generous serving of no less than five encores, including a stage-stealing surprise guest turn from Dubai-based soprano Inva Mula – winner of Domingo’s first Operalia contest in 1993 – and a crowd-pleasing nod to the tenor’s Mexican upbringing in sizzlingly Latin bolero Bésame Mucho. The sheer charisma of Domingo inciting an audience to nervously join him in song, like some kind of opera Bono, was electrifying.
It is hard to overstate what huge potential the Dubai Opera brings to performing arts in the UAE, and the wider region. Whether this magnificent institution will be able to live up to its own ambitions remains to be seen, but on the basis of opening night, it got everything right – a traffic-stopping banner name, an accessible but credible programme, and a keen and attentive audience of the curious and converts alike. Oh, and it sounded fantastic, too.