"I groan like a prisoner on trial," sang Luciano Pavarotti. The description was not strictly accurate, but it didn't matter since he was singing it in Latin and most of the audience was intent on the tone.

By the time he reached the "Ingemisco" from Verdi's Requiem, Pavarotti's voice was beginning to warm up; the soft notes were still not totally reliable, and an occasional syllable dropped into inaudibility or sagged below pitch. But he was beginning to sound richer and more flexible after a thin, wooden beginning, and an occasional crescendo or ringing high note would give an inkling that the man on the stage, waving a silly white hankerchief in his left hand and shifting his considerable weight nervously from foot to foot, was indeed the greatest living Italian tenor.

The fans who packed the Kennedy Center Concert Hall never lost faith for a moment, though their appaulse was initially more polite than thunderous. There were occasional moments of splendor, but for a long time nothing to justify those who stood in line from 6 a.m. to get standing-room tickets, those who filled the parking area long before the program began, or the gantlet of people asking, "Do you have a spare ticket?"

At his best, Pavarotti is a superb singer, but no mere mortal could equal the fevered expectations of the mink-clad groupies pressing into the hall and exhausting the supply of programs.

"He has people more excited than any tenor since Caruso," said Paul Teare, program director of station WGMS. "We had six tickets to give away to people who phoned in, and I have never seen such a response. One woman told us she had terminal cancer, and if we didn't give her a ticket, she would die without hearing Pavarotti."

Pavarotti disappointed in Schubert's "Ave Maria," which he phrased with disgusting vulgarity in Latin and even worse (with added tremolos) when he did a reprise in Italian. But he hit his stride with "Fra poco a me ricovero" from "Lucia" and sang almost flawlessly four Nepolitan confections by Tosti. Then it was time for encores and the real show began.

Pavarotti programs are kept short in the expectation that numerous encores will be demanded. They were and the four encores brought the unit cost per song below $1. For a diehard opera fan, any one would have been worth the $17.50 cost of admission.

The mst spectacular came between the second and third standing ovations, when Pavarotti introduced one of his students, soprano Madelyn Renee, and they sang together the climatic arias and duet from the first act of "La Boheme."

The two voices blended magnificently, and at her best the young soprano sounded like a potential Tebaldi. Pavarotti's three solo encores ("Una furtiva lagrima," "Donna non vidi mai" and "Nessun dorma") were all excellent -- but the segment with Renee was the climax of the afternoon.

Pavarotti's voice is no longer quite what it was a few years ago, and it took him about an hour and a half to warm up -- partly, one suspects, because the kind of music required in a formal recital program is not necessarily the best kind of music for his voice.

If he can find a way to do it, Pavarotti should henceforth skip the recital program and begin with the encores.