Fitting tribute to a music legend

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for gentlemen now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here” at Royal Opera House Muscat on Thursday night to share the experience of the “Homage to Luciano Pavarotti” Gala Concert.
Ten years since the death of the legendary Italian tenor aged 72, his anniversary was celebrated by four of the best opera voices of today, singers who had a connection with the warm and generous musician during his lifetime, either by being coached by him or sharing the stage with him. In his later years, Luciano Pavarotti from Modena devoted much time to encouraging talented emerging singers, and so it was fitting that four students from the Luciano Pavarotti Foundation, founded by his widow Nicoletta Mantovani since his death, also shared the stage in this memorable tribute performance.
Supporting the entire evening was the Philharmonic Orchestra of Brescia and Bergamo Festival, which made its international debut less than a year ago with Three Tenors collaborator, Placido Domingo, right here in Oman. Conducting the 62-strong ensemble was the vivacious and energetic world-renowned interpreter of ‘bel canto’ singing, Italian Maestro, Fabrizio Carminati — also no stranger to Muscat as he brought Donizetti’s ‘L’Elisir d’Amore’ to ROHM in February 2016.
With the orchestra on stage in concert format, proceedings opened with a perfectly chosen set of archive photos, mostly in black and white, of the night’s celebrity from childhood to early adulthood in a montage which reminded the audience just what charisma and presence Pavarotti had, and what a handsome figure he cut in those years before most people present would have been aware of him. It was projected onto a huge screen to an operatic sound track and concluded with an iconic clip of him singing “New York, New York” in an open-air arena of thousands. It could not have been a more poignant beginning for a live performance.
It started with the Overture to Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux”, with curious references to ‘God Save the Queen’, expanded into a robust prelude to the first soloist of the evening. Thirty-seven-year-old, Genoa-born Francesco Meli sang one of Pavarotti signature roles from “Un Ballo in Maschera”, ‘Forse la soglia attinse’ with such convincing passion one could believe, with a projection of the great man looking down from behind, that we were in his presence in the auditorium.
Fiorenza Cedolins, the Italian Soprano, sang “Tosca” with Pavarotti in 1996. Here she sang the much-loved ‘Un Bel di Vedremo’ from Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” with such mellow warmth and expressiveness one could see why she is one of the most celebrated opera singers of our time, known for her refined vocal technique, colour and dynamic range.
One of the biggest names of the night performed ‘Vesti la Guibba’ from Leoncavallo’s popular “Pagliacci” under the gaze of Luciano the Clown — the tears of the Clown which the 54-year-old Sicilian, Marcello Giordani, seemed to summon with disquieting ease, giving an effect of uncanny reality.
In such company we were royally treated, but when Korean Soprano Sumi Jo entered in white and sang, ‘E strano! E strano… Follie!’ we were lifted to celestial heights. She is one of the most sought-after coloratura sopranos of her generation and is praised for the remarkable agility and precision of her vocal technique. Diminutive and like a 19th century consumptive she was captivating in her performance from Verdi’s “La Traviata” by her delicacy, poise and control.
The Finale of Part 1 brought four singers from the Foundation onto central stage in a delightful Quartet from Verdi’s “Rigoletto”, ‘Un di se ben rammentomi’. Here the most Pavarotti-like voice of the evening, 24-year-old Peruvian Tenor, Ivan Ayon Rivas, gave a splendid performance with a volume which belied his stature and youth.
Part 2 started with the comic and much loved, ‘Dance of the Hour Glass’ from Ponchielli’s “La Giaconda”, which saw Maestro Carminati positively jumping on his podium. And then Francesco Meli returned to the stage for Leoncavallo’s brief cameo, ‘Mattinata’. Here was a tenor with a broad range of emotion and dynamics in his voice, and this was all too short, but he was to be heard again in the Finale with Sumi Jo in Donizetti’s ‘Lucia Perdona…’ which brought out the best from this magnificent pair.
Fortunately Ivan Ayon Rivas had another opportunity to shine in that well-known chestnut, ‘La Donna e mobile’ from Verdi’s “Rigoletto”, and I have a feeling we will be seeing a lot more of this Peruvian tenor in the future. Twenty-six-year-old Brazilian Mezzo-Soprano Ana Victoria Pitts — no stranger to Muscat — was also allowed a solo from Bizet’s “Carmen”. The ‘Habanera’ is almost so familiar that it has become a challenge to be original and sing it well. Sadly, her performance was wooden after the lively animation of Fiorenza Cedolin’s ‘lo son umile ancella’ from Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur” and her French lacked the conviction to make her a truly seductive cigarette girl. Similarly, Victor Herbert’s ‘Italian Street Song’ from “Naughty Marietta” was a poor choice for Sumi Jo’s light coloratura, as her attempts at sleazy humour were lost under the overpowering orchestra.
The show was beautifully concluded with a close-up of Pavarotti’s most famous solo, ‘Nessun Dorma’ at Verona Arena — a most appropriate ending as the ROHM has just closed its production of a Puccini “Turandot” adaptation for young people. Several standing ovations brought the whole company to an Octet encore as a smiling image of the Big Man watched the adoring audience file out into the cool Midan, enriched by his enigmatic presence.

Georgina Benison

— Pictures by Khalid al Busaidi