Opera season closes on high note

Young tenor makes triumphant debut as last-minute sub for Pavarotti

— For Luciano Pavarotti, it's over. For Salvatore Licitra, it's just beginning.

On a night of high drama at the opera house, Pavarotti disappointed thousands of his fans by deciding at the last minute he was too ill with the flu to sing the closing performance of the Metropolitan Opera season. Licitra, a young Sicilian tenor, went on instead � and scored the most triumphant Met debut in recent memory.

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AP Photo

Tenor Salvatore Licitra, who replaced an ailing Luciano Pavarotti in the role of Cavaradossi, enjoys a standing ovation after the Metropolitan Opera's closing night performance of Giacomo Puccini's "Tosca" Saturday in New York. Licitra was not scheduled to make his Metropolitan debut until spring of 2004.

Licitra (pronounced li-CHEE-tra) sang the role of painter Mario Cavaradossi in Puccini's "Tosca" on Saturday, and with his bright, ringing sound and confident manner quickly won the affection of the 4,000 people who packed the house � as well as 3,000 more watching a live telecast on the Lincoln Center plaza outside. They showered him with extended applause and bravos after both his big arias and a 2 1/2-minute standing ovation at the end of the performance, bringing tears to his eyes.

For Pavarotti, closeted in his apartment just a few blocks south of the opera house, the cancellation likely marked a mournful end to a glorious Met career that began with his appearance in Puccini's "La Boheme" in 1968 � the same year Licitra was born.

At 66, after 373 Met performances of 20 roles, he is absent from the roster next season � and Met general manager Joseph Volpe made it clear he would not be returning in staged opera, though he might be invited back for a concert or recital. Nor does he have performances booked at any of the world's other opera houses.

Pavarotti had kept the audience guessing until the very last minute, with no sign posted in the lobby as usually happens when a star cancels. When the house lights went down and the spotlight came up on stage, there were groans of dread.

Stepping out from the curtain, Volpe related the events of the evening: A phone call from Pavarotti at 5:15 p.m. saying he would go on, but then another at 7:10 p.m. in which he said, "I'm sorry, my friend, I cannot sing." The Met had even sent a vocal coach to help Pavarotti prepare. Volpe said later that the coach confirmed the singer was too congested to sing.

Volpe said he had asked Pavarotti to come to the house to give his regrets in person to the audience, but the singer replied, "I cannot do that."

He said he then told Pavarotti, "This is a hell of a way to end this beautiful career of yours."

Licitra, who has performed the role of Cavaradossi in Europe, where he lives, had been flown over by the Met on the Concorde as a standby after Pavarotti canceled his first scheduled performance Wednesday. The understudy that night was journeyman tenor Francisco Casanova, and Volpe knew he'd have to do better to placate the closing-night gala audience, which paid nonrefundable ticket prices ranging from $75 to $1,875 � up from the usual $30 to $265.

Comparisons are of course inevitable, and it would be far too soon based on one performance to proclaim Licitra an heir to Pavarotti's legacy. Still, he would appear to be a bright hope for opera lovers who have been searching desperately for tenors to fill the gap in the Italian repertory left by Pavarotti (and the retirement a few years hence of Placido Domingo, who is 61).

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