Opera: Shiver me timbres

He arrived with some aplomb, a decisive move downstage, yes, even the hint of a spring in his step. From every corner of the house, the relief was almost palpable. There he was, the living legend, on stage, on time, moving well, and looking... impressive? Kingly? Ample. So far the world's most famous tenor had made it from upstage centre to downstage centre without incident. The house breathed easier. But now the voice. That's what the Covent Garden glitterati had paid big bucks to hear. Luciano Pavarotti is 60 this year. And that in itself is remarkable. That makes him a collector's item, that makes hearing him in the theatre, live and unamplified, a status symbol. The prices can only get higher.

But is it really too late to be hearing him? That's a moot point. All things considered, the voice is still in amazing shape. The timbre is distinctive and full, no edge, no stridency, great presence. The Italians have a word for it: scoperto ("open air"). And that it is. The bright trumpet-toned top is still there, but sparingly displayed on this occasion. His choice of Gustavus III in Un Ballo in Maschera - Verdi's darkest and most mysterious score - was shrewd. This isn't a splashy, declamatory, just-you-wait-for-the-top-notes kind of role. It's about suavity and style: fine legatos, deft articulations, and the intrigue of a mellower cast of voice. Pavarotti has that now. It's not just his physical girth that has filled out: he actually has more possibilities in the middle and bottom range. But that's not what the punters came to hear, and you could sense their disappointment at the lack of tenorial fireworks.

But they should at least have appreciated his attempts at finesse, the way those Italian vowels curl around the musical line, the way he'll taper away the sound to sustain the full length of a phrase, the often beautiful cover over his ascents into mezza voce. He can no longer slip effortlessly in and out of the head-voice, and the "sweet songs" of the King's youth recalled in his big number in scene two was actually a bit of a croon. But that's more than some tenors half his age can accomplish. His recent bout of bronchitis was plainly still inhibiting him: glasses of water were usually to hand. In one priceless moment, mid-way through the love duet, his precious Amelia was left marooned on stage while he took off into the wings, ostensibly to check for spies in the shadows, but actually in search of urgent lubrication.

Not that even that seemed in the least out of place in this ludicrous revamp of the old Otto Schenk staging. Talk about turning the clock back 50 years or more. Talk about operatic taxidermy. There was Florence Quivar's Madame Arvidson looking for all the world like a gypsified Tina Turner; there was the heroine, Deborah Voigt, glimpsed through mottled gauzes, her hands outstretched imploringly like some silent movie Madonna. Presumably we're expected to leave our theatrical sensibilities in the Crush Bar on these occasions.

But I'll not leave my musical sensibilities there, too, and the big man's supporting cast gave us precious little to shout about vocally. Quivar was good value as the fortune teller, her rich, smoky production compensating for a certain lack of dramatic bite. But Voigt's Amelia was disappointing. The age-old litmus test is her first golden phrase which failed to arch in the true Verdian manner. She gave us plenty of voice (a whopping top C at the crest of her Act 2 aria), but not the beseeching long-breathed and floated phrases that are the hallmark of the great Verdi soprano. Giorgio Zancanaro (Anckarstrom) was once a great Verdi baritone: here he sounded dry and constricted. Which left us with a spirited Oscar for Lillian Watson and sturdy direction from Edward Downes. And the big man. A whole army of extras were on hand to make him comfy in his death throes. A Royal exit? I think it's time.

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