On three trips, Pavarotti charmed Baltimore fans

The Baltimore Sun

In Luciano Pavarotti's foreword to Ponselle: A Singer's Life, published by Doubleday in 1982, he wrote that when he was growing up in Modena, Italy, he could "hardly remember a time when the name Rosa Ponselle was unfamiliar to me."

Pavarotti, who died this week, wrote that her recordings "assured her of immortality," and as a young boy alto, he was urged to "listen to them, note by note, one after the other."

In the early 1970s, Pavarotti and the great Metropolitan Opera Company diva began a telephone-and-letter friendship that culminated in 1977 when the operatic tenor visited Villa Pace, her Green Spring Valley home.

He acknowledged in the foreword that his pulse quickened as he made his way up the driveway, wondering what she would be like.

"I had always been told by those who knew her well that she was very lively, very magnetic person; yet silently I had to remind myself that I would be meeting a lady who would soon celebrate her 80th birthday," he wrote.

"On that treasurable day I met not an elderly lady but a young woman, a woman still very much in the springtime of her life," he wrote.

After an expansive lunch, the two stars spent the remainder of the afternoon singing arias and duets together.

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 as being brown in color, amberlike in its purity."

Pavarotti would not return to Baltimore until 1986 -- five years after Ponselle's death -- when he made his local debut on March 9 before 14,000 adoring fans jammed into what was then the Civic Center.

"Luciano Pavarotti is a bigger-than-life opera star in an art form that itself is bigger than life. He's 'Pavarotti Pandemonium.' He's Enrico Caruso gone wild in an electronic age. He's bigger now than merely New York's Met, London's Covent Garden or Italy's La Scala," reported The Evening Sun.

"Be it Baltimore or Beijing, Pavarotti can pack 'em in. At 50, he's starting his third decade playing one of the most worshiped and scarce roles in the world of opera: the Italian Tenor," observed the newspaper.

Baltimoreans quickly scooped up all available tickets to hear the great tenor, who explained that he had only one mood: "good."

"To the dismay of some hardcore opera purists and the delight of millions who don't know bel canto from the blues, Pavarotti has used the media to parlay his position as a leading tenor in the Italian operatic repertory into a prime-time mega-star," reported The Evening Sun.

Delirious with joy, the 14,000 concert-goers managed to turn the Civic Center for several hours into an indoor version of Memorial Stadium, described during the heyday of the Colts as the "world's largest outdoor insane asylum."

They cheered, whistled and kept stamping their feet until the great tenor submitted to a fifth encore of the "Nessum dorma" aria from 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, then The Evening Sun's music critic.

"After each popular aria or popular Italian song, Pavarotti would open his arms to the balconies, hanky dangling from one hand. And lean his head back with eyes shut to fully absorb all of the love and adulation that showered down from above," he wrote.

So great was Pavarotti's voice that there were moments when it overwhelmed the Civic Center's amplification system, which was more fitted to broadcast Bullets or Blasts games.

"Through it all was Pavarotti's clear tone, seamless traversal of his entire range, and sparkling diction that have made his singing dear to many. Last night it had the audience begging for me," Duncan wrote.

Pavarotti returned in 1989 for another concert at the Civic Center, which had by then been renamed the Baltimore Arena.

The old sound system bugaboo haunted Pavarotti once again, so much so that Stephen Wigler, then The Sun's music critic, wrote that there was "so much feedback into the giant speakers, that critical judgment was impossible."

What Wigler did observe with joy was the arena's concession stands selling hot dogs and buttered popcorn rather than the "overpriced Perrier and cheap champagne typically found at an opera house," he wrote.

"I for one will never forget the energy and delight with which a leather-clad woman in front of me tore into her popcorn when Pavarotti began Donizetti's 'Una furtiva lagrima' ('A furtive tear')," he wrote. "It was a reminder that art begins with popular entertainment."


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