Grazie, Signore Pavarotti

Times Staff Writer

Luciano Pavarotti appeared at Staples Center on Tuesday to sing before a crowd of 10,286. All the seats the arena put up for sale were sold -- the bleachers above the sky boxes were closed off and fronted with acoustic curtains. It was announced as a benefit for Los Angeles Opera, and although the company does not yet have a final accounting, ticket prices were high (a top of $750 for a special package) and evidently substantial proceeds will be available to help make some of the ambitious plans for opera in L.A. come to pass.

For this, fans have one more reason to thank Pavarotti, an opera singer who very well may have given more pleasure to more people than any in history. I am one of those grateful fans, having been overwhelmed by the tenor at his San Francisco Opera debut more than 30 years ago.

But there has always been an element of the grotesque about Pavarotti, and I think part of the tremendous Pavarotti appeal was just how effectively he could turn that grotesquerie into charm.

Here, after all, was a quite fat man who became a sex symbol. Here was a singer with an ego as wide as his waist. He never even tried to convince you he was portraying a character other than Pavarotti. But when he stood there and effortlessly poured forth those ringing high notes, threw his arms out wide in triumph, flashed an irresistible smile brighter than any stage lights and then surreptitiously tried to pinch a nearby soprano, you knew you were in the presence of world-class charisma.

Seeing and hearing Pavarotti at 66 can still evoke memories of those glory days when he was dubbed King of the High Cs. But he has not aged gracefully. One note in 10 retains a strong hint of the Pavarotti sound; one in 100 actually is the Pavarotti sound. His beard and long hair are the glossy jet black of a 20-year-old or of buffed patent leather shoes, but he moves now with effort, gingerly walking on and off stage holding on to the conductor. When he sings, he's next to a stand with a cushioned armrest for support. With its built-in cup holder, it looks like something that has been ripped out of an SUV.

The program featured the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra. It was efficiently conducted by a Pavarotti functionary, Leone Magiera. And the tenor alternated with soprano Cynthia Lawrence in a not insubstantial program of operatic excerpts, if heavily weighted toward Puccini and other Italian verismo composers.

A coarse amplification system, notably less refined than the one employed by the Three Tenors, made its own grotesque contribution. The instruments of the orchestra made a treble-heavy metallic sound. It almost seemed that the engineers had it in for singers, given the way vocal blemishes were magnified. I doubt, for instance, that Lawrence's vibrato is nearly as unnatural as it was made to seem under amplification.

Nothing appears easy, or much fun, for Pavarotti anymore. In the first half of the concert, he struggled through famous Puccini bits from "Manon Lescaut" and "Madame Butterfly." For "La Boheme," he attempted a tiny bit of self-conscious acting in his duet with the adoring Lawrence, "O soave fanciulla," though it is unlikely Baz Lurhmann will invite the pair into his Broadway production any time soon.

Pavarotti was more warmed up after intermission and more comfortable by the end when he launched into those Italian songs for which he has such an instinctive feel.

But tellingly, his most effective moment all evening was "Vesti la giubba" from Leoncavallo's "I Pagliacci," which the tenor sang as if consumed by the pain of the clown who must go on, who must laugh through the tears. At the point Pagliacci produces his mock laugh, someone in the audience loudly laughed back. I doubt that he meant it that way, but it sounded mocking and sadly emphasized what an artificial spectacle this whole charade proved to be.

For the most part though, the audience seemed content to be in a star's presence, if not wildly enthusiastic. The crowd was well-dressed and polite and finally got worked up for the encores. Pavarotti asked the audience to sing along with a rousing version of the drinking song from "La Traviata." A Pavarotti fan club from Tokyo moved up front waving plump Pavarotti dolls in the air. For a brief second the place came to life.

It was a nice note on which to go out. But it appears Pavarotti has no intention of going out on this or any other nice note. In his insatiable need to go on, mechanically waving his arms in triumph after each number, he is losing the battle with his grotesque side.

Thanks, Luciano, for the memories and the money, but please don't make the final curtain any more painful than it need be.

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