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Television Review

'Pavarotti': Good Cause but Too Little Wonder

December 09, 1998|RICHARD CROMELIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You'd have to have a lot of Grinch in your blood to think any ill of Luciano Pavarotti's annual concert to benefit the international aid agency War Child.

And in offstage footage in "Pavarotti & Friends," a 90-minute film of the event airing tonight on KCET-TV (it's also available on video), the maestro's compassion is palpable as he discusses the plight of the children of war-torn Liberia with Spike Lee, whom he enlisted to direct the concert coverage.

But you'd need an uncommon tolerance for the frothiest mainstream pop and orchestral rock to be engaged by the music that transpired that June night in Pavarotti's hometown of Modena, Italy. His past benefits attracted the likes of Eric Clapton, Sting, Elton John and U2. In 1998 it's Celine Dion and the Spice Girls.

Yes, Pavarotti duets with both (as he does with all the singers, including Jon Bon Jovi, Natalie Cole and Trisha Yearwood). The Girls (uncharacteristically demure in pants and jackets) are victims of the show's most severe mismatch, as the tenor's passages annihilate their wispy harmonies on "Viva Forever." (Slipping into something less comfortable, they return alone later with a more typical dose of girl power.)

Dion presents a different problem on "I Hate You, Then I Love You": She emotes harder and harder but earns not a flicker of response from Pavarotti. For someone who comes off so warmly in the candid pre-show scenes, he's remarkably stiff in performance, in part because he's concentrating on unfamiliar music that he's just learned.

Vanessa Williams provides some sizzle in her segments, but the only guest who can offer a musical heft to balance the Pavarotti power is Stevie Wonder. Though all but inactive in recent years, he's in strong voice, and the song he wrote for the occasion, "Peace Wanted Just to Be Free," is the show's musical and emotional highlight.

As for those other marquee duets, it's probably best to appreciate them for their bizarre when-icons-collide nature and keep repeating, "It's for a good cause."

* "Pavarotti & Friends" airs on "Great Performances" at 9:30 tonight on KCET-TV.

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