Times Music Critic

Once upon a time, there was an excellent Italian tenor named Luciano Pavarotti.

He didn't have the biggest voice in the world, or the sweetest. He didn't make the most dramatic of sounds, or the most refined. He couldn't erase memories of Tucker or Bjoerling, much less Gigli, Martinelli or--saint of saints--Caruso.

But he could sing with nice, open, sensual tone, with natural lyricism, with uncommon freshness and ardor. He enjoyed the advantage of an easy top range and, for all his girth, he exerted a special, amiable, innocent appeal on the stage.

Then the high-velocity publicity machines began to churn on his behalf, and a promising artist suddenly became a portentous property. He became a portentous property bigger than life, in more than one sense, and better.

Suddenly, in America at least, Pavarotti was a superdivo, a god purportedly blessed not just with charisma for the masses but also with the voice of the century. He was touted as the eighth wonder of the world. Virtually overnight, he was transformed into a television personality, a would-be movie star, a household name, a credit-card salesman. Those undeterred by his avoirdupois even saw him as a sex symbol.

Somewhere, in the process, Pavarotti began to sing too much, began to sing roles that were too heavy for him, began to lose his top notes, began to abuse his special gifts, began to believe his own hype. Luckily, only the critics seemed to notice, or care.

In the good old days, Pavarotti gave concerts in conventional concert halls. Now he sings in monstrous arenas that wreak havoc with the sound at his command and, not incidentally, with the projection of his art.

Apologists call this a virtue, a commendable effort to bring culture to the multitudes. Cooler heads cite the possibility of a less lofty motive: greed. One man's missionary zeal can be another's aesthetic prostitution.

Last summer, Hollywood Bowl played host to a prepackaged evening of musical junk food with Luciano and his friends. Thursday night an identical Pavarotti Show was staged at the San Diego Sports Arena.

An audience that applauded as soon as it recognized such favorite hits as "La donna e mobile" and "Mamma" shouted friendly suggestions in mid-aria and mid-ditty. The ecstasy was instantaneous.

Given the special social and acoustical circumstances, the same audience might have been just as ecstatic if any fat man from central casting had stood on the stage with his mouth open and waved a big white handkerchief to the accompaniment of recordings blasted over the PA system. With overamplified echoes dribbling violently from wall to wall in San Diego's 14,000-seat basketball-and-circus stadium, what passed for Pavarotti's golden tones could just as well have emanated from a singing whale or an electronic riveting machine.

Here was the fodder for a new fable: one about the emperor's new voice.

The unruly throng that patronized this quasiconcert, sponsored by the San Diego Opera in conjunction with Tibor Rudas, did not fill the Sports Arena. The $15 seats were sold out, even though most of them happened to be located behind Pavarotti's platform, affording a good view only of the heroic tenorial derriere. There were plenty of empty spaces, however, on the main floor, where $350 and $500 tickets assured the most generous patrons not only a frontal perspective but a reception handshake and a table near the tenorissimo at a post-concert dindin.

The most prominent name listed in the program magazine among "Pavarotti's Silver Circle" seemed to belong to Mr. Steven P. Garvey.

Opera Co. spokespersons estimated attendance at 10,000 or 11,000, depending on which spokesperson happened to be consulted. Your faithful scribe cannot attest to the acoustical reception afforded the devout in the far corners of the arena, but in the midsection of the main floor--atop the basketball court--the tenor sounded about the way the average soloist sounds at Dodger Stadium during the National Anthem.

It should be noted, however, that Chris Lachonas, who sang the "Star-Spangled Banner" at the Dodgers-Astros game last Saturday, sounded better. And he enjoyed the advantage neither of Pavarotti's larynx nor of the "revolutionary" sound system installed for the Pavarotti Show.

What's that? You want to know what happened at the show? OK.

Emerson Buckley, Pavarotti's favorite time beater, beat time swiftly in six demonstrations of orchestral program padding, swiftly and deferentially when Pavarotti was at the microphones. The Orange County Pacific Symphony followed gamely. Andrea Griminelli tootled indifferently here and there on his irrelevant flauto non-magico .

Pavarotti warbled a modest number of short and low arias, and made a few others shorter and lower than usual by omitting verses and transposing keys. There wasn't a high C in earshot, and most of the top tones that did emerge emerged with strain. Occasionally, he changed words and left out syllables to facilitate sonic exhibitionism.

Rinky-dink Italianate ditties, mostly in kitschy clothes concocted by Henry Mancini, separated the obvious hits of Verdi, Donizetti, Giordano and Leoncavallo. Pavarotti altered the order of the agenda without warning or explanation and, dropping all pretense of spontaneity, printed the titles of his four encores in the program magazine.

Everything sounded pretty much the same.

One might forgive all these lapses in taste, technique and integrity if this were just an ordinary evening of music-making and if Pavarotti were just another talented singer.

Unfortunately, impresario Rudas makes that difficult. On the first page of the program booklet, he calls the concert "an historic event" and, without qualification, labels the soloist "the greatest tenor that ever lived."

Dio mio.

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