Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Reviews

Selling the Audience Short

Concert Review from The Oakland Tribune and Other ANG Newspapers
April 8, 1994

By Cheryl North

How would you feel about paying a hefty sum to hear legendary pianist Van Cliburn play a toy piano with only about 10 working notes? Or pay big bucks to hear world-class flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal play a penny whistle? Or see Van Gogh's Sunflowers on a dark night in a large room packed with people and lit only by a single candle?

That's about how it felt to hear and see super tenor Luciano Pavarotti, as he performed before an estimated 17,000 admirers at the San Jose Arena Wednesday night.

First, he was only a little more visible than a Ken doll from all but the $190 seats in the first 10 to 15 rows. If you were up in one of the balcony areas in a "cheap" $17.50 seat, it was like watching an ant sing.

Secondly, and more significantly, the amplification system obscured his rich middle range and mercilessly exposed and thinned his ringing, signature high notes.

Peerless technique

Yet, even though it was a little like listening to old recordings of Caruso on my grandfather's 1930s Victrola, one could discern that The Voice is still glorious and youthful in its suppleness, and that Pavarotti's musicianship and technique are still peerless.

His first aria, Addio, fiorito asil from Puccini's Mama Butterfly, was lovely and his Non piangere Liu from Puccini's Turandot was elegantly, sensitively phrased. The incomparable Che gelida manina from Puccini's La Boheme was meltingly seductive, although the duet, O suave fanciulla, shared with soprano Cynthia Lawrence, bared a badly focused climactic high note.

His post-intermission selections, Addio alle madre from Mascagni's La Serenata, Leoncavallo's Mattinata and De Curtis' Non te scordar di me, also revealed a couple of strained highs and what was surely fatigue and the effects of jet-lag from his 13-hour flight from Australia earlier this week.

Lawrence fared better

Lawrence, a young American prize-winner in the Luciano Pavarotti/Opera Company of Philadelphia Competition, as well as other prestigious vocal competitions, fared better with the sound system. Her My Man is Gone Now from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess was full and rich like syrup, and her O mio babbino caro from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi was tender and lovely.

Her best was the lyrical Vilja from Lehar's The Merry Widow. She sang it with a gorgeous tone retained even through slides up the scale to crystal clear high notes sung at pianissimo levels. She also used it as a long encore to no doubt spare the tired Pavarotti.

What the sound system and the building acoustics did to Pavarotti's golden voice it did even more so to the tonal quality of the San Jose Symphony, the accompanist for the event. Led by the distinguished operatic conductor Leone Magiera, the members of the orchestra played beautifully, but their music sounded like it was filtered through the aural equivalent of cheesecloth.

Violins and violas were shrill and thin, wind sonorities were almost inaudible, and cellos and basses were distorted. (At least you could sometimes feel the percussion through the floor boards.) As a result, the orchestral selections -- Intermezzo from Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, the Overture to I Vespri Siciliani by Verdi -- were a waste of time and money and an insult to the ears.

Overall, I came away sorry for all who attended. Better to watch our hero on television's Live from Lincoln Center or on a video. The exorbitant parking fees ($10 for a spot a half-mile away), programs for only about a third of the attendees, a gladiator-like atmosphere and only about 45 minutes of the tired but well-meaning tenor made it an audience rip-off.

Better to have more concerts in smaller venues and perhaps more honesty in billing - like "Pavarotti and Friends" or "An Evening of Favorite Arias featuring Luciano Pavarotti, Mary Smith, John Doe and the Metropolos Orchestra conducted by Joe Jones."

At the other end of the spectrum, a good example would be Cecilia Bartolli's Zellerbach Hall appearance in Berkeley last month. Although places like Zellerrbach can't hold Cow Palace numbers and bring in the mega-bucks, amplification is not ncessary to show off splendid vocalism and one doesn't get the sense of watching the performer through the wrong end of a telescope.

Pavarotti is simply too good to waste in a blatant rock-concert format.

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