Tony Bennett at the Metropolitan Opera House: Concert Review

The 85-year-old singer is both ageless and timeless. 

You know you’ve made it when you’re able to get an ex-President to introduce you. Not that Tony Bennett needs any introduction. But there was Bill Clinton ambling onto the stage of New York's Metropolitan Opera to affectionately preface the venerable singer’s benefit performance for the Met to celebrate both his 85th birthday and the release of his new Duets II album.

Clearly a marvel of genes as well as career longevity, the octogenarian singer is simply remarkable for his undiminished vocal skills, his vibrancy and his physical spryness, the latter demonstrated with some twirling dance moves that produced cheers from the crowd. While his voice has inevitably changed with the passage of time, it still remains remarkably intact, and his interpretative skills, timing and phrasing have only deepened. In his 90-minute set he performed numbers that he’s sung countless times, including such signature tunes as “I Wanna Be Around,” “The Good Life,” “For Once in My Life” and, of course, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” But each was imbued with a richness of feeling that made them feel utterly fresh.

Most performers his age would hide behind a large symphony orchestra and back-up singers. Not Bennett, who uses only a superb four-piece jazz quartet -- Less Musiker (piano), Gray Sargent (guitar), Harold Jones (drums) and Marshall Wood (bass) -- for accompaniment. While the generous solos he allowed the players clearly had the benefit of providing him some rest, his effusive and frequent acknowledgments also revealed a generosity of spirit.

Whether infusing such ballads as “Smile” and “The Way You Look Tonight” with a rich tenderness or displaying perfect rhythmic timing on such jazzy numbers as “I Got Rhythm” and “Sing You Sinners,” Bennett literally didn’t sing a false note.

Two of his Duets collaborators, Alejandro Sanz and Aretha Franklin, appeared to reprise their performances from the collection. Sanz, singing largely in Spanish, melded seamlessly with Bennett on an ethereal “Yesterday I Heard the Rain,” which Bennett proudly proclaimed had just hit No. 1 in Spain. And a healthy looking Franklin delivered gorgeous vocalizing on a deeply moving “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?”

Although he’s not on the new CD, Elton John also showed up to sing along on a jaunty “If I Ruled the World” in which he generously ceded the final section to his co-star.

The evening was practically an aerobic experience for the audience, who rose constantly for standing ovations throughout. After Bennett closed the show with his trademark device of performing a number sans amplification--here a stirring “Fly Me to the Moon”--the cheering crowd refused to leave until the house lights came on.

Among those in the star-studded audience were Bill and Hillary Clinton, Robert DeNiro, Richard Gere, Mario Cuomo, Katie Couric and many others.

Set List:

Watch What Happens
They All Laughed
Maybe This Time
I Got Rhythm
How Do You Keep the Music Playing (with Aretha Franklin)
Sing You Sinners
Just the Way You Look Tonight
Steppin’ Out With My Baby
Yesterday I Heard the Rain (with Alejandro Sanz)
Just in Time
Because of You
I Wanna Be Around
Once Upon a Time
The Good Life
For Once in My Life
The Shadow of Your Smile
I Left My Heart in San Francisco
The Best is Yet to Come
If I Ruled the World (with Elton John)
Who Cares
When You’re Smiling
Fly Me to the Moon