**** Luciano Pavarotti **** “THE GREAT ONE”


One need only listen to Luciano Pavarotti singing “Una furtive lagrima” to understand the phenomenon: Tito Schipa’s may have been more intimate and “classy” but the voice was small and had its limitations, and Beniamino Gigli’s beautiful sound was peerless, but he tended to exaggerate. Pavarotti had no flaws. His soft attack on the first note is perfectly introspective, his repetition of “Che più cercando io vo?” has just the right sadness, the crescendo and slide into “M’ama!” is full of feeling and perfectly controlled, the legato pure throughout, and the sense that the singer understands the entire arc of the aria from first note to last is never in doubt. The high notes ring, and there is not an ounce of vulgarity – not a sob or an aspirate. These things – plus the perfect melisma on “non chiedo” near the aria’s end – define bel canto. It is not, however, the voice of a tenore leggiero or tenore di grazie: it has more body and can expand without pushing.

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The first Pavarotti recording released in the United States was Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda, in which he sang the not-very-grand role of Orombello. He was impressive, but not many people were interested in the Bellini rarity. Then came the glorious Verdi-Donizetti CD conducted by Edward Downes. Little known arias from Il duca d’Alba and Dom Sebastien were sung so gracefully, with such morbidezza, and with such brilliant – and easy – high notes that it was absolutely clear that a great bel cantist had arrived. And Riccardo’s third act scena from Un ballo in maschera exhibited a grander sound, with more thrust and power in mid-range: this was a voice that might eventually be able to sing anything.

And eventually, he practically did.

A personal note to begin: I had heard a RAI transmission from Torino on the radio of Lucia di Lammermoor, in 1967, with a tenor named Luciano Pavarotti (Renata Scotto was the Lucia). “The real thing,” I thought. I then discovered a “private recording” of Claudio Abbado’s re-working of I Capuleti e I Montecchi from 1966 (with Margerita Rinaldi and Giacomo Aragall as the lovers) and another, from 1967, with Renata Scotto in Rinaldi’s place. In both performances, the Tebaldo was Pavarotti. Long, beautiful phrases, superb diction, and a blazing, easy high C at the end of his act-one cabaletta in both performances made me sit up and listen. When the Metropolitan Opera announced that he would be making his house debut as Rodolfo in La bohème, I made certain I would be there.

Luciano Pavarotti. “Una furtiva lacrima”.

Well, he cancelled (laryngitis) and I sold my ticket at the door and bought one for the following week, when he was announced again, for the Saturday matinee of November 23, 1968. Mirella Freni was the glorious Mimi; the ordinary Francesco Molinari-Pradelli conducted. By the end of the performance (actually, by the end of “Che gelida manina”), the secret was out and Pavarotti belonged to New York – and vice-versa. Press and public alike went wild with praise.

Tito Schipa. “Una furtiva lagrima”. (1929)

But America did not go completely Pavarotti-crazy until 1972, when Donizetti’s witty, operetta-like La fille du régiment with Joan Sutherland as Marie was presented at the Met for the first time since the 1940s. Expectations were high – the spectacular Decca recording had been released in 1968 – and besides that, Ljuba Welitsch was singing the role of the Duchesse of Krakentorp! Sutherland was not only in brilliant voice – as she invariably was – but proved herself to be a fine comedienne. But not since the prime of Franco Corelli as Calaf and Cavaradossi had there been such an uproar for a tenor. After a perfect rendering of “Ah, mes amis,” the famous/infamous aria with nine high Cs, the house exploded, and he eventually took seventeen curtain calls. The next season, it was broadcast to the entire country. The “King of the High Cs” had been crowned and the love affair was official. It lasted for the next 25-or-so years.

 In the ‘70s and ‘80s he conquered every great concert hall and opera house in the world and frequent appearances on television, in concert with Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, or alone (and on late-night talk shows), brought him into every home in America. His voice, of course, was instantly recognizable and engaging; his charisma was undeniable. He seemed as if he wanted to be loved by every man, woman and child in America. He grew larger and larger physically and he was never without his handkerchief: America loves eccentricities and he had plenty of them. (He would frequently turn his back to the audience and eat some food he had hidden during performances of L’elisir d’amore at the Met.)

He became the most popular classical performer since Enrico Caruso. His catastrophic entry into popular cinema – “Yes, Giorgo” – was forgiven. And when he became “King of the high Bs” – during a telecast of Ballo opposite Katia Ricciarelli he hid behind her when he lunged for, and cracked on, a high C – he was forgiven: high Cs do not last forever and his tone remained lustrous. His physical limitations and frequent cancellations became more newsworthy than his artistry, which had somehow been given over to singing with “friends” such as Bono, Elton John and Sting. And he became one of the most famous men in the world by the time of the 1990 World Cup and the subsequent “Three Tenors” franchise; Americans who disliked opera bought the CDs and videos and lined up for his sold-out concerts. He had become an “event” even as his artistic standards sank lower and lower; his “new” audiences were not opera lovers, they were spectacle-watchers and had no idea whether or not his performances were great or mediocre. They came to see a money-making miracle who was famous for being famous.

 L. Pavarotti. “Ah mes amis.” (La fille du régiment, MET 1972)

In 1989, having cancelled 26 out of 41 performances at the Chicago Lyric Opera in the previous eight years, he was fired by the company; he began to forget words to songs and arias in concert and opera; in 1992, unprepared for the role of Don Carlo at La Scala, the less-forgiving-than-American audience booed him.  He lip-synched an aria in Modena. Despite transposing the role down a full tone, he repeatedly missed high notes in Fille at the Met in 1995 and eventually cancelled performances. In 1997 he suddenly announced that he would not – or could not – learn the contracted-for role of Don Alvaro in La forza del destino for a new production at the Met; the company substituted Un ballo in maschera. With the music on a stand in front of him, he lost his place in a trio from Luisa Miller at a Met gala in January, 1998, and during a concert performance of Otello under Sir Georg Solti, he sat on stage with a hot, wet towel draped over his head while the others sang –unprofessional, selfish, bizarre and distracting. The audience laughed – and he was not suited for the role, either.  Performances of Calaf and Cavaradossi frequently found him out of breath and unable to walk; he had to be assisted by supernumeraries on stage. The public never became angry – the fat man was simply being carefree – but opera lovers and critics grew tired of his lapses in taste, preparation and concentration.

 Pavarotti, Ricciarelli. “Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa”.  (Un ballo in maschera)

And still, he sold out every performance he was announced for, including his last appearances at the Met in 2004 in Tosca, and after a pair of last-minute cancellations he actually sang. The old gleam was still in the voice for at least half of each evening and he remained an exhibition: at his last performance, there were 10 curtain calls and a 15 minute standing ovation. America never fell out of love with him even as his early worshippers – and there was plenty to worship – became more and more disenchanted and disappointed.

But none of it matters – his recorded legacy memorializes only his greatness. The instantly recognizable timbre, the exquisite diction, the classic “Italian-ness” of his voice, the many colors, the flawless pitch, the ability to carry larger roles (Chenier, Radames, Calaf) than his natural gifts would suggest will be remembered long after his lip-synching, inability to read music well, romantic scandals, gigantic ego, and painted-on eyebrows are forgotten. Nobody will remember him for the talents he wasted, only the talents he shared.

Robert Levine

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Robert Levine


Robert Levine is music writer and editor. He initiated Amazon.com's classical CD store. Author of "Weep, Shudder, Die - A Guide to Loving Opera," "Maria Callas - A Musical Biography," and "A Child's Guide to the Orchestra".

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