x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

None shall sleep when the curtain rises in Muscat

The two-night-only curtain-raiser on Muscat's new opera house will be Turandot. The real star, though, is the building.

"Nessun dorma! Nessun dorma!" None shall sleep. None shall sleep.

When Placido Domingo, arguably the world's most famous living tenor, conducts arguably opera's most famous aria at Muscat's new Royal Opera House next Friday night, the applause will surely waken even the soundest sleeper.

It was important to find a guaranteed audience pleaser for the region's newest concert venue, particularly when the audience will include Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the ruler of Oman and a noted devotee of classical music.

And so the opera is Turandot, the story of a Chinese princess whose lovers usually end up on the sharp end of an executioner's axe. To millions of football fans, of course, Nessun dorma is the theme to the 1990 World Cup.

This production - for two nights only - is by Franco Zeffirelli, the towering genius of Italian cinema, whose second career as an opera director includes a production of Tosca at London's Royal Opera House in 1964, generally regarded as the last great performance by the diva Maria Callas.

Add to the mix Domingo, who has performed more roles than any tenor in the history of opera and who will also sing four days later, and you have a memorable evening even by the standards of La Scala or the Metropolitan Opera House in New York,

The real star, though, is the building. The cost, almost certainly in the hundreds of millions, is a secret. So, also, is the building's lavish interior, deliberately concealed from the eyes of the public and the media to maximise the effect on opening night.

One report says that the interior features shadings of red and gold; colours that, according to the AFP reporter who was allowed a glimpse of the interior, "together reflect royalty".

The exterior, though, is in full view of anyone with the time to wander around the 80,000-square-metre complex that includes landscape gardens and restaurants, a smaller theatre and luxury stores.

It has taken 10 years from the royal decree that established the project to raising the curtain on opening night.

The original consultants were Theatre Projects, a London-based company whose work also includes the international conference centre at the Emirates Palace and the National Theatre of Bahrain.

Construction was carried out by Wimberly Allison Tong and Goo, better known as WATG, an American firm with a background of hotel and leisure projects that includes the Atlantis and the One and Only Royal Mirage in Dubai.

The result is a building created around the traditional design of a grand Italian opera house, but the exterior, faced in local limestone, echoes the Arabian-style architecture of Muscat with high arches, colonnades and terraces.

Inside, the auditorium will hold up to 1,100 people for concert performances and 850 for theatre performances, including a royal box for Sultan Qaboos, whose patronage of classical musical goes back at least two decades with the foundation of the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra in 1985.

With a population of just three million, opening an opera house in Muscat might seem an ambitious step. To generate interest, the Royal Opera House Muscat has created a series of teaser commercials around its first production.

In one, a man follows a Spanish gypsy woman through Muscat's ancient souq to the music of Bizet's Carmen. In another, a young Arab woman is transfixed by the appearance of the black swan from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake on a traditional Omani balcony. The pay-off line is: "Where the extraordinary happens."

Tickets for Swan Lake, Carmen, Andrea Bocelli and the London Philharmonic Orchestra are already reported to be going fast, with some performances sold out. Acknowledging the culture of the region, there will also be a concert by the Lebanese soprano Majida El Roumi and a tribute to the greatest lady of Arabic song, Umm Kulthum.

It all begins on Friday night with Domingo and Nessun dorma. "All'alba vincero! Vincero, vincero!" At dawn I will win! I will win! I will win!

jlangton@thenational.ae