It was live from Lincoln Center last night on public television, and it had never happened before -- because it was Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti in their first joint recital. By the time they had finished, the stage of Avery Fisher Hall was being buried with flowers and the applause went on for more than 10 minutes. Each singer added an encore, and the program ran a half hour longer than the scheduled two hours.
It was worth it to those who love to hear the operas of Verdi, Bellini and Donizetti sung by two glorious voices that belong to two warm friendly people.
Not all of the singing was done during the live concert. The intermission was of unusual interest because of the honest comments by the two singers and conductor Richard Bonynge, who is also Sutherland's husband. He pointed out that "Singing is not all inspiration. You have to have technique, but then the technique has to be forgotten." Pavarotti spoke of he constant concentration required, and Sutherland added that "The rockets and shooting stars do not go off in every performance. You never know. The whole thing is a risk."
The risks last night, and there were plenty, were minimized by Sutherland's rocklike technique, starlit by fabulous trills, and by Pavarotti's ability to become the character he is singing.
And to my ears, in a startling moment taken during one of the rehearsals for the concert, Pavarotti sang one of the most rapturously beautiful sounds I have ever heard from any human throat. He was moving through the final phrases of "Cielo e mar," from Ponchielli's "La Gioconda," but he was saving his voice as he went, taking the high notes in a full, soft mezza voce. In that tone, he sang the last "Ah, vien!" It was breath-stopping, and infinitely more beautiful than the huge tone with which he brought the house down in the actual concert.
Sutherland, who gave her wildly admiring fans a complete change of evening gown at intermission, shared the solo arias evenly with her famous confrere, while they placed superbly matched duets throughout the program.
It was interesting to note Pavarotti carrying a long, white handkerchief all the time he was singing -- no doubt a kind of blanket and blue and perspiration absorber at the same time. Each singer made it easy to understand why they stand on unsurpassed peaks in the music they have mastered. With Bonynge's solid direction of a top orchestra, it was a total success in the Live From Lincoln Center series.
At the very end of the evening, the three principals sent Happy Birthday wishes to Rosa Ponselle on her 82nd birthday.