He might have just released a pop album, but there's none of your promotional touring for Luciano Pavarotti. Why should he? An old-fashioned recital, the same as the great tenor has given for decades, will do very nicely. Result, one packed Royal Albert Hall, the rows of arena seats jammed together with all the leg room of a charter plane.
The experience isn't quite the same as it was, though, at nearly 68, the Pavarotti voice is still one of the wonders of the Western world. He arrived on the platform looking eager, boyish and, before the professional manner took over, even slightly nervous. In the last year, he has been through bereavements but he was looking in better health than he did for his Hyde Park concert in the rain, back in the 1990s. As well he might: his baby daughter Alice, seen wide-eyed in the auditorium before the show, nearly stole the evening.
The voice itself has aged with grace. Certain limitations have to be accepted. The gut thrills of a tenor pushing against the extremes have mostly gone. So, to the disappointment of football fans, has the aria that he made into an anthem of the World Cup, "Nessun Dorma''. But it's still the real thing much more than a reminder of the astonishing instrument it was for so many years, and he should certainly see out the two seasons planned to his retirement.
It took a while to warm up and, in the early numbers with piano, there were a few approximations of tuning, a heavy wobble, and plainly some hard work on the top notes. They tended to come before a break and needed a certain amount of heaving up, like a weightlifter building up to his winning hoist. Once into Bellini, the voice floated much more easily, the manner was more relaxed. The half-voice he now uses more is a ravishing vehicle in its own right. A full scene from Puccini's La bohème had real go, even when it needed effort, and, every so often, a sign phrase would rise up as of old.
The soprano Carmela Remigio responded with Mimi's aria - rich tone and impressive technique, yet for all her advantages of youth, without Pavarotti's fluency, at least until the duet, which was half-acted - she leaning on him, he continuing to lean on the piano even though the Royal Philharmonic had taken over. Between them, they gave a much better impression of spontaneity in what is supposed to be the love-at-first-sight scene to end them all. Their later duet, a less familiar one from Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz, was one of the evening's best things, altogether fresher, with one magical pause and hushed follow-on that took away the years in an instant.
It's a cruel thing, being the supporting act to the main event. Yet in her own arias, while the big man took his breathers, Remigio acquitted herself with aplomb. The audience warmed to her and gave her final numbers from Lehár operettas, sung in Italian translation, one of the evening's biggest cheers. Leone Magiera shouldered an even more thankless support role, on piano and as conductor, in the best way - spirited, elegant and discreet. The last was especially necessary when Pavarotti, perhaps to compensate for refusing the aria for which the audience was shouting, ended by getting them to be a Verdi chorus and insisted on conducting them himself.
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