In the dead of a Sunday morning outside Toronto’s Massey Hall, scores of hopefuls braved sub-zero temperatures and blistering winds to form a queue apropos of a Van Halen concert. The Jan. 17 recital by the Caruso of the ’80s, Luciano Pavarotti, vied with Wayne Gretzky and the visiting Edmonton Oilers as the hottest ticket in town: urgent pleas in the classified columns bid as high as $250. An announcement that several hundred additional seats would be set up onstage brought frustrated fans out in the arctic chill (incidentally undercutting the rates of scalpers, who were finally forced to unload their tickets at face value).
The balaclava-hooded and mufflered claque was also undaunted by other rumors—which proved less accurate—that, while Pavarotti’s fame grows, his ringing tenor instrument is not what it once was.
There were fears that the florid bel canto singing style in which the 46year-old tenor specialized was beginning to fray at the edges—the “king of the high C’s” had abdicated to B-flats.
Also, plagued by a cold, Pavarotti had dropped out of appearances in Riyoletto and Luisa Miller at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in preceding weeks; the unspoken unthinkable was that he might be forced to cancel.
But shortly after 3 p.m., his familiar bulk shrouded in tails, his obligatory white handkerchief trailing from his fist, Pavarotti strutted onstage and flashed his 1,000-kilowatt smile. There was little of the gluttonous, pasta-stuffed bulk caricatured in The Globe and Mail the day before, a portrayal that reportedly enraged the singer. Once mammoth, Pavarotti had slimmed himself down to respectable operatic heftiness. For singers, excess avoirdupois is a carriage for resonance and unerring projection.
Two Mozart arias scheduled to open the show were bumped in favor of less exacting selections—except for a few brief trills—from the 18th-century Italian repertory; tenors, with the most fickle voices in opera, need limbering up. But when Pavarotti began three sacred pieces, there was no doubt of his
command, his taste and his empathy. The Inyemisco from Verdi’s Requiem, with its great crescendo and climb at the end, was almost as thrilling as when he recorded it 15 years ago. Bizet’s Agnus Dei was fevered, weighed down with humble supplication. And in Schubert’s soaring Ave Maria, a trademark of divas such as Renata Tebaldi, the tenor turned his back on the hall to sing the second verse to the enthusiasts who managed to secure last-minute berths on the stage. The unearthly, gentle sounds of his vanishing pianissimo imbued the huge auditorium and made one wonder why his reputation was built on fortissimo head notes.
The second half of the program was mostly devoted to those marvellous
roasted chestnuts by Tosti, a writer of Italian popular songs. Pavarotti’s renderings erased the shame of the welling eye or the lump in the throat triggered by such sentimentality and proved that even the overwrought can be artistic. There seems to exist a monopoly on the blatantly nostalgic, controlled by the “Italians and the Irish. John McCormack, an exemplary Mozartian, could raise tears with Mother Machree, and Beniamino Gigli was as quick with a
heart-wrenched sob as any crooner. Surely they could not help but applaud their godson, Pavarotti. His version of De Crutis’ Turna a Surriento made one want to run to book passage to the winewarmed south of Italy.
Pavarotti’s magical charm almost, if not quite, obliterated questions about his phenomenon. Detractors have groused that his preoccupation with celebrity has made him indifferent to mere recitals; this performance certainly belied that cynical view. True, there are practising tenors as good, if not better: Placido Domingo’s voice is fresher and his repertory wider, and Jon Vicker’s instinct for navigating a ferally powerful voice through texts of great dramatic subtlety is nonpareil. But Pavarotti is now opera’s Ambassador at Large, the first such male star since Caruso. It has a lot to do with that underrated quality, that cliché called charisma. BILL MACVICAR
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