CLASSICAL MUSIC: Pavarotti Royal Opera House, London

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It had the air of an abdication about it. "The world's greatest tenor" in one final performance before the house closes for refurbishment. The end of an era. Well, with John Major looking on from the royal box, it certainly felt that way. Would he be back? Luciano Pavarotti, that is. Who's to say? At the beginning of the afternoon it sounded like a timely farewell, by the end (and unlike Mr Major) he was looking forward to another term. Remember, it's not over until the fat man with the handkerchief stops singing. The clock is running, but no one is saying goodbye. Yet.

It's still such a thrill to close your eyes and know a voice. To hear one note and experience that frisson of recognition, familiarity - reassurance. To begin with, there wasn't too much reassurance. The voice is pushing 63 now, and takes a while to rise and shine. Pavarotti chose to coax it with a trio of old Italian art songs: Bononcini, Beethoven, Scarlatti. The sound was dry, the coloratura awkward, the artful little turns into mezza voce more optimistic than fulfilling. In short, he was thinking, feeling finesse, buoyancy, and elegance (trills more imagined than actual) - but the voice was having none of it. It was strangely touching to see this of all singers working so hard to achieve a fraction of what would once have been so effortless. It was like he had everything still to prove - to himself, if not to us.

A prolonged and pointed clearing of the throat preceded Schubert's Ave Maria. Nothing is sacred when phlegm intrudes, and, as it was, the famed Pavarotti legato was coming in fits and starts, depending upon which part of the register was involved. Then came the earthly devotion of Bizet's Agnus Dei and suddenly on the final "dona nobis pacem" he managed to free the instrument, to cover the breaks, turn separate events into one, and move from rapt head tone to a full-chested "pacem" that rang out just like the old days. The two Tosca arias confirmed that the warm-up was almost complete. "Recondita armonia" was a shade circumspect. "E lucevan le stelle" gained hugely from the way that the bottom of the voice has now opened up. Some things get better with age.

And so, after an interval that could easily have accommodated two Zeffirelli set changes, the recital we'd all been waiting for, but were not sure would ever happen, happened. Out came the Tosti songs and out came the sunshine. And the nostalgia. The whole occasion seemed to turn with Non t'amo piu, its disillusionment cast in beautiful, evocative, shadowy phrases. The muscle of the voice audibly relaxed, enabling it to float and caress at last, so that when it came to the inevitable "Una furtiva lagrima" from L'Elisir d'amore we were not just reminded of, but experiencing, first-hand, vintage Pavarotti. And that's tantamount to first-hand Donizetti. It's in the style, the colour (like a mature chianti), the feeling that these particular vocal endearments are inseparable from the vocal line, that they in some way elicit its very soul.

And it was there again in the remaining Tosti ballads. "L'ultima canzone", yet another memory of bygone love, culminated in a high A so intense that the woman next to me audibly tingled.

And that was by no means all. Time and again Pavarotti and his pianist, Leone Magiera (looking for all the world like his old retainer), disappeared behind the pair of tatty folding screens that constituted their stage set, only to re-emerge with yet another encore: most touching of all, a reminder of the day 34 years ago when he first trod these boards - as a substitute for Giuseppe di Stefano in Puccini's La Boheme. It was an emotional "Che gelida manina", sung the way they used to sing it, the way Pavarotti still does - not subtly but with bags of heart. And again you closed your eyes, waited for that big note - the Italians have a word for the way he sang it: scoperto ("open") - and thought, yes, he really is still here.

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