NEW YORK -- The great ones have the hardest time saying goodbye.
For 11 minutes, Luciano Pavarotti soaked up the bravos after Saturday night's performance of "Tosca" at the Metropolitan Opera.
It was his final night of staged opera, the 68-year-old tenor had revealed Friday, the end of a career that began 43 years earlier. He stuck out his arms, and he waved to the crowd. He put his hands together and bowed his head in tribute to his fans. He touched his heart, and he blew kisses.
His face, still stained near his right eye with fake blood from the performance, was filled with emotion. From the grand tier of the Metropolitan Opera hung a huge red banner with white letters: "WE LOVE YOU LUCIANO" it read, a heart replacing the "O" in "LOVE."
The ovations could have gone on much longer - they stopped only because the hefty Pavarotti seemed to be having so much trouble walking on stage in front of the big gold curtain. There were four solo curtain calls in all, plus two with soprano Carol Vaness and three with the larger cast, including conductor James Levine, who pushed Pavarotti back in front of the curtain for one more appearance after all the others had left.
All night long, Pavarotti appeared to be fighting to keep his emotions under control.
There was a 35-second ovation when he walked on stage in the first act. His voice sounded constricted for his first aria, "Recondita armonia (Oh hidden harmony)," which was barely audible in sections, and he kept his eyes closed for much of the time, appearing to revel in the moment.
His big third-act aria, "E luceven le stelle (And the stars shone)" was followed by another two-minute ovation as flashbulbs popped throughout an auditorium where photography is forbidden. He even broke character and waved to the crowd.
It was the biggest farewell ovation at the Met since soprano Leonie Rysanek said goodbye in January 1996. And, in some ways, this was similar to Leontyne Price's final "Aida" on Jan. 3, 1985 - while the performance wasn't noteworthy for the singing, the singing brought back memories of so many great nights.
The normally staid Met printed a special 20-page section in the program that detailed the career of Pavarotti, who was singing his 379th performance with the company since his debut in "La Boheme" on Nov. 23, 1968.
Asked Friday why he was retiring from opera - he still plans concerts up until his 70th birthday on Oct. 12, 2005 - Pavarotti said: "I think it's time." This performance, the last in a run of three that began March 6, showed why.
He could keep up at full voice only in the lower half of his register. In the upper half, he lacked power and breath. He needed assistance walking on and off stage, and had to sip from cups of water on the set to keep his throat moist.
But the Met knew that coming in. Pavarotti's last performances at the Met that were truly noteworthy for the singing were in "Turandot" during the 1997-98 season. But he kept on going, figuring Pavarotti at less than full strength was still better than most.
After the performance, during an on-stage reception, Pavarotti sat on a chair and greeted members of the company and friends. He held a sore wrist and lumbered slowly when he returned to his dressing room. His face was filled with both satisfaction and resignation.
He had come a long way from the first professional performance, a "La Boheme" at Reggio Emilia, Italy, on April 29, 1961.
"I have a full life, a full, happy life," he said a day earlier. "And I thank God for this, every morning I thank God. I am a lucky man, a lucky person."