As expected, Luciano Pavarotti filled the Hollywood Bowl on Monday night, both with his voice and with his fans. The one was received by the others — 17.979 strong, the full Bowl capacity — with clear and obvious delight. It was a night that the true believers could take home, relive and cherish.
Pavarotti was, in fact, in fair voice quite a bit of the time. His chosen program could not exactly count as arduous. There was a generous spattering of instrumental pieces to allow the singer to replenish his stock of high notes, loud notes, soft and crooning notes and the rest of the vocal paraphernalia that has earned him his particular place on the cultural landscape.
There were also, of course, problems. As early as the third aria on the program, the “Cielo e mar” from Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda” there were identifiable moments of strain. Later on, in the set of three sentimental Italian songs that concluded the program, there were vocal slips, small but constant. Now and again he seemed motivated to try a full-throated pianissimo, a beautiful effect when it works. This time, nothing worked.
Why nitpick? Simply because in a program such as this, with a vocal superstar at the center and nothing much around the edges. there isn’t much to concentrate on except questions of vocal excellence. There was only one message here, that Pavarotti can do no wrong. When he did something wrong, therefore, it stood out.
In fairness, there were also moments that were glowingly, glisteningly right. The big aria from Verdi’s “Luisa Miller,” which began Pavarotti’s part of the program, was ravishingly delivered. The “Turandot” aria that was the last of the five encores, was sent aloft sheathed in vocal brass, gold, steel and many rarer metals as well. Either of those moments was easily worth the price of a ticket (up to a thousand-dollar top).
Pavarotti aside, however, it was an evening strewn with silliness. This was the final stop of a portable package, put together by impresario Tibor Rudas, that also included the dubious services of conductor Leone Magiera and flutist Andrea Griminelli — here with an aggregation from the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A clutch of instrumental tidbits filled in the spaces around the Pavarotti numbers, dispatched with no discernible grace. The lighting design leaned heavily toward a lurid hot pink that turned the stage into a monumental boudoir. Two truckloads of sound equipment were brought in, to replace — but not improve upon — the Bowl’s own excellent facilities.
This last proved an especially sore point. Someone among Rudas’ minions dreamed up the notion of bending the whole sound image toward a rock-style presentation, with dozens of microphones around the stage and with Pavarotti so heavily miked that the orchestra behind his arias might as well have gone home. The effect was more of a vocal recording being mimed than a live performance.
IIt could be that Pavarotti likes this line of work, and he can’t be blamed for liking the money it brings. But with the world’s supply of tenors in dire straits,it remains a shame that he has sealed himself off from serious culture. It must be noted, however, that nearly 18,000 screaming, whistling, stomping, cheering Pavarottists, at the Bowl on Monday night, acted as if they believed otherwise.