The Civic Center audience was bigger than for a whole run of a Washington Opera production. The 13,667 seats in this cavernous chamber, usually devoted to conventions and soccer, were filled tonight with fans basking in the vocal and personal charisma of Luciano Pavarotti.
The listeners seemed ecstatic most of the evening, with standing ovations more the norm than the exception, and zealous fans shouted at the singer throughout the concert for particular numbers -- especially the aria "Nessun dorma" from Puccini's "Turandot," which turned out to be the last of the five encores. It is a magnificent piece of music, and Pavarotti sang it well, but ideally it requires a heroic timbre that is not a strong part of Pavarotti's vocal arsenal.
Tonight's program did not on the whole emphasize what Pavarotti does best. The emphasis was on semipopular Italian ballads and late Romantic Italian verismo opera -- with lots of Puccini.
But the tenor, whose work spans the subtleties of Bellini's bel canto to the profundities of the Johnny Carson show, obviously gave the horde of listeners what it came to hear.
Don't misunderstand. Pavarotti, in addition to being a public idol, is at his best an elegant singer. And at that best he is also a great singer. There is that incomparable sweetness with which he can croon certain tones, especially in the middle of his range. There is his control over soft notes. And there is his general phrasing, especially in tender moments.
He didn't try any bel canto, but it might well have been lost in the amplified maze that was necessary to communicate the Great Voice across the vast hall.
And when Pavarotti tried some of the lyric pre-verismo material with the Duke's two arias from Verdi's "Rigoletto," a role in which he normally excels, the singing was uncharacteristically effortful.
Soon after, though, came the high point of the evening, a rendering of the grave "Lamento di Federico" from an opera one almost never hears, Cilea's "L'Arlesiana." Here there was no trace of forcing in that beautiful voice; phrasing was precise and attacks were clean as crystals. It didn't go on very long, but it was wonderful to hear while it was happening .
Oddly, the Italian ballads on the program, which one would expect to be second nature to Pavarotti, often were dull. The tenor seemed to be sight-reading many of them, and the result was listless, an adjective one certainly does not associate with this flamboyant crowd-pleaser.
But the tenor's stage presence was as always, and one does not mean that just in the formidable-waistline sense. The mega-setting seemed just right for Pavarotti's personal magic, if not his voice: With each ovation arms were outstretched, the gleaming white teeth are exposed by the smile, the ever-present white handkerchief hanging from the left hand (why always the left hand?).
The most impressive thing about the evening, however, was not the singer, but the size and enthusiasm of the audience he drew. Though the local company is able, Baltimore does not have a reputation for being all that much an opera town. But you would never know that from the frenzy of tonight's audience.
And in that sense, the whole evening reflected the current mass appeal of opera, spawned by televised opera, where Pavarotti first became a superstar.
All said, it was some show. And the listeners clearly had a good time. But there is more to singing than that.