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When Pavarotti brought his larger-than-life voice to Baltimore

“Pavarotti,” the Ron Howard documentary about the celebrated life of the 20th century’s most notable operatic tenor, premiered nationwide earlier this month, to critical acclaim.

The fabled tenor visited Baltimore three times. The first time was to visit his operatic idol, Rosa Ponselle, the great Metropolitan Opera diva, at her home, Villa Pace, in the Green Spring Valley in 1977, where they enjoyed an expansive lunch, and spent the remainder of the afternoon singing arias and duets together.

Luciano Pavarotti compared her voice to that of Enrico Caruso — “a genuine voce d’oro — a voice of pure gold” and “I think of her voice being brown in color, amberlike in its purity,” he wrote in a forward to “Ponselle: A Singer’s Life,” published by Doubleday in 1982.

It wasn’t until 1986, five years after Ponselle’s death, that the tenor returned to the city, when he made his operatic debut on March 9 before 14,000 fans who jammed into what is now the Royal Farms Arena.

“Pavarotti came. Pavarotti conquered … Be it Baltimore or Beijing, Pavarotti can pack ’em in,” reported The Evening Sun. “At age 50, he’s starting his third decade playing one of the most worshiped and scarce roles in the world of opera: the Italian Tenor.”

The audience went wild throughout his performance and successfully prevailed upon Pavarotti to sing a fifth encore of the aria “Nessun dorma” from Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot.”

“Pavarotti gives a recital like Pope John Paul II says Mass: It’s an event under the big-top, wired for thousands, even millions. Last night was no different,” wrote Scott Duncan, The Evening Sun music critic.

There were moments when his powerful voice proved too much for the arena’s amplification system more suited to broadcasting scores for sporting events or a circus than grand opera.

On his 1989 return visit, this time before 10,000 adoring fans, the ancient sound system plagued him once again.

“The force of his dynamic personality and unmistakable star quality will not likely be encountered again for a very long time,” wrote Baltimore Sun music critic Tim Smith at the time of his death in 2007.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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