As loyal fans of Luciano Pavarotti readied themselves yesterday to hear him perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York they were really not expecting much. They knew that advancing years and girth have left his voice and stagecraft less than what they used to be. They just wanted him to turn up.
Expectations should have been as high as the gods. The performance in Puccini's Tosca was the start of the superstar tenor's farewell world tour, after which, he has said, he will never appear in a fully staged opera again. But the mood was different because of things past.
The last time Pavarotti said he was singing at the Met for the positively and absolutely the last time ever was in May 2002. The night came - with some fans paying $1,875 (£1,000) for a seat - but the star did not. Just two hours before the curtain was due to go up, Pavarotti telephoned the manager of the Met from his Manhattan apartment and said he had flu and would not be singing after all.
Insult was added to injury that night when Pavarotti ignored pleadings from the manager, Joseph Volpe, to at least appear on stage to apologise to the audience. A visibly despondent Mr Volpe was left with the task of breaking the news.
Now 68 years old, married since December to his mistress of 10 years, Nicoletta Mantovani, and father of a one-year-old daughter, the opera star is embarking on a long world tour taking him up to his 70th birthday in October next year. That, allegedly, is when he will retire from full opera performing for good. The opera houses on the tour are those that helped plot the arc of his opera celebrity.
"For all of 2004 and the beginning of 2005 I will sing in theatres where I had my career," he told the Italian magazine Chi. "No artist is immortal, maybe not even me. The moment is coming when I need to say 'enough'."
Of all the venues close to his heart, the Met is high on his list, if not at the top. Although his first big break came in 1963 at Covent Garden, when he stepped in for the tenor lead in La Bohème to tumultuous applause and breathless reviews, it was to the Met that he returned over and again.
"The Met was the most important theatre for me, and I have to leave the Met with a good memory and not with the memory I left them with last year," he said in an interview in 2003.
Over three nights, beginning yesterday evening, Pavarotti was to sing the part of Cavaradossi. The cast includes the soprano Carol Vaness as Tosca and the bass Samuel Ramey as Scarpia, with James Levine conducting.
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