No one stands on a stage the way Tony Bennett does. In a crisp suit with arms outstretched and a smile just as wide, Bennett wears his age and stature in popular music as badges of honor.
He is 86 years old, a fact that has been increasingly hard to believe as Bennett continues to tour and record albums that put him at the top of the charts alongside artists who could be his great-grandchildren. His heroes — Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee — did not make it to his age.
Here’s what’s even more difficult to fathom: Bennett still belongs on a stage. When he came to Boston Opera House on Thursday, he owned the audience before he ever stepped out in front of it. But then he delivered a sublime performance that was succinct at 80-odd minutes but expansive in its reach.
The occasion was inherently poignant: Valentine’s Day with a man whose entire catalog is concerned with matters of the heart. When he took on “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” he sang it as much as he recited its bigger questions, suggesting that his understanding of it has changed over the years. “The more I love, the more that I’m afraid/ That in your eyes I may not see forever.” It was heartbreaking.
As was his interpretation of “Cold, Cold Heart,” the Hank Williams classic that became one of Bennett’s earliest hits. Bennett still found nuance in its passages, delivering each line as if it spoke intimately of his own experience.
In lieu of banter, Bennett kept to the script. With his four-piece band, he cruised through more than 25 songs — some of them wholly formed (including dusky renditions of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”), others truncated for just a taste of their flavor (“The Good Life”).
His backing musicians were as economical as Bennett’s delivery: Harold Jones on drums, Lee Musiker on piano, Marshall Wood on bass, and Boston native Gray Sargent on supple guitar solos that burrowed into Bennett’s voice.
The high notes weren’t always there, but Bennett’s bravado and determination to hit them were. Nearly every song ended with a build-up from the band, matched by a spike in Bennett’s volume. Even when he was wobbly, which was often, he was still expressive.
Which brings up another truth about seeing Tony Bennett these days. In theory, he has been in his twilight years for at least a few decades. No one has bothered to tell him, and he has been afforded an air of royalty. He could be resting on his laurels by now and be given no grief. Instead he pushes forward, reminding you that he’s not only the last of a specific breed, but also among its finest practitioners.