Pavarotti says goodbye to opera
NEW YORK – This is the finale, Luciano Pavarotti said of Saturday’s “Tosca,” one last opera on stage after more than four decades of the high Cs that transformed him from an insurance salesman to perhaps the most widely beloved classical singer ever.
All 4,000 tickets had been sold for Saturday night’s production at the Metropolitan Opera House, the stage that made Pavarotti famous as the tenor with the big belly and super-sized smile.
He had said last summer that this would be his final staged performance at the Met. During an interview with The Associated Press on Friday, Pavarotti went a step farther: It was his final night of staged opera anywhere.
“Tomorrow is a very important day,” the 68-year-old Italian said at his apartment overlooking Central Park. “It is the last performance on the stage.”
Just at the Met?
“Anywhere, I think,” he said. “I think it’s time.”
He said back in 2002 that he intended to stop singing completely on Oct. 12, 2005, his 70th birthday.
His opera performances had been dwindling to a precious few: four in London in January 2002 and one in Berlin last June.
Last weekend, two years after a pair of famous cancellations at the Met caused by a cold, Pavarotti returned for the first of three appearances as Mario Cavaradossi, the young painter in Puccini’s “Tosca,” with Carol Vaness in the title role, Jams Morris as the evil police chief Scarpia and Met artistic director James Levine conducting.
While reviewers said he was nearly immobile and his voice lacked the bloom of youth, they also were struck by moments when the distinctive, sweet ringing sound was still there, the voice that sold millions of recordings. He was far looser at Wednesday’s performance.
On Saturday night, he received a 35-second ovation when he walked on stage and appeared to be overcome with emotion as he started his first aria, “Recondita armonia.” His voice sounded somewhat constricted and he kept his eyes closed for much of the time, appearing to revel in the moment. There was a two-minute ovation at the end of the first act.
His big third-act aria was followed by another two-minute ovation as flashbulbs popped throughout the house. At the conclusion of the opera, there was an 11-minute ovation that featured four solo curtain calls as everyone from the orchestra to the standing room section applauded and yelled “Bravo.”
He sounded wistful when explaining his decision to leave the opera stage, where he debuted in Italy in 1961.
“Certainly, if I hear myself in the performance of (Wednesday) night, I have to say, ‘Why are you leaving?’ And the answer is because I should be lighter and be able to run on the stage. And one day, in one year, if I am able to run on the stage, perhaps I don’t retire. Who knows? Who knows? Miracles can happen.”
He has had a special relationship with the Met. Saturday’s performance was his 379th with the company, far more than any other. He has sung 140 times at Milan’s La Scala, 100 at London’s Royal Opera, 76 each with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the San Francisco Opera, 48 at the Opera de Paris and 45 at the Vienna State Opera.
His preference for the Met stems from his relationship with Levine and Joseph Volpe, who has run the company since 1990.
“There is a kind of intriguing affair between the three of us, that made me want to come here and made me very sad to leave,” he said.
But it’s much more than that. He points out his window toward Central Park and smiles.
“Give a look to this park,” he said. “That is the first answer. New York is not a city, it is a person. It is a friend if you work here well.”
He remembered his first Met performance, in Puccini’s “La Boheme” on Nov. 23, 1968. He sang with the flu and the reviews were just so-so.
“It was not a great debut, not at all,” he said.
A few days later, he couldn’t finish his second performance and felt crushed when he talked to Rudolf Bing, the Met general manager.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m finished. My life is finished to do my debut at the Met like that. Destroyed.’ He says, ‘No, no, no. You will come back next year, you will come back with “Lucia” and other performances, you will do beautifully.”‘
He did. And in 1972, he nailed the nine high Cs in Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment,” becoming a worldwide phenomenon. Then, on March 15, 1977, he inaugurated the Met’s broadcasts on PBS in “La Boheme” with soprano Renata Scotto.
“The year before, I was walking on the street, nobody recognized me at all. Nobody. I was Mr. Nothing,” he said. “But the day after the performance on the television, everybody stopped me and everybody applauded me. And then I understand the power of television, and I realized what means television, and I began to make love to television, to have television on my side, to devote myself to television.”
He appeared in 19 Met television broadcasts and 33 radio programs. He went on “The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson,” made opera an event in 31 “Three Tenors” concerts with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, and sang to hundreds of thousands in Central Park and London’s Hyde Park.
Pavarotti eventually sang 20 roles at the Met.
But, with age, there was decline. Because of bad knees and hips, stagings had to be changed. He sat on chairs and hid cups of water on sets.
“Let’s say that in the last 10 years there are a lot of performances that are not super,” he said. “They are very good – like many other tenors would have liked to do – but still, they are not super.”
Like Joe DiMaggio on the baseball field, he felt he had to live up to his highest standards because someone might be seeing him for the only time.
His reward came during curtain calls when he heard the shouts of “Bravo!”
What goes through his mind then?
“They love me,” he said. “I love them. It’s a mutual affair.”