Italian Operatic Artistry at Its Finest

An Appraisal

Italian Operatic Artistry at Its Finest


Published : September 6, 2007 / The New York Times

In the old days of the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts, a popular feature on the “Texaco Opera Quiz,” as the intermission show used to be called, involved playing recordings of several artists singing the same well-known aria and asking the panelists to identify the singers. It was surprising how often even opera experts would confuse one great artist with another.

But no one ever mistook the voice of Luciano Pavarotti. There was the warm, enveloping sound: a classic Italian tenor voice, yes, but touched with a bit of husky baritonal darkness, which made Mr. Pavarotti’s flights into his gleaming upper range seem all the more miraculous.

And it wasn’t just the sound that was so recognizable. In Mr. Pavarotti’s artistry, language and voice were one. He had an idiomatic way of binding the rounded vowels and sputtering consonants of his native Italian to the tones and colorings of his voice. This practice is central to the Italian vocal heritage, and Mr. Pavarotti was one of its exemplars.

For intelligence, discipline, breadth of repertory, musicianship, interpretive depth and virile vocalism, Mr. Pavarotti was outclassed by his Three Tenors sidekick and chief rival, Plácido Domingo. But for sheer Italianate tenorial beauty, Mr. Pavarotti was hard to top. That was certainly the position of his longtime manager, Herbert Breslin, who combined his own promotional savvy with his chief client’s vocal greatness to produce the moneymaking phenomenon that was Mr. Pavarotti’s career. Call it Pavarotti Inc.

“Nobody in the tenor world has Luciano’s sound, that Italian sound,” Mr. Breslin told Manuela Hoelterhoff for her wonderful 1998 book “Cinderella & Company.” “Domingo,” he added, “would have to go pray in 17 churches in Guadalajara to find that sound.”

However partisan that zinger may have been, there was some truth to it. To hear Mr. Pavarotti at his best in a role like Riccardo in Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera” — spinning lyrical phrases with bel-canto elegance, then stunning you with visceral vocal outbursts — was to hear Italian operatic artistry at its finest.

In a career quirk, a French role became the vehicle of Mr. Pavarotti’s breakthrough to the big time in the early 1970s: Tonio in Donizetti’s “Fille du Régiment,” written for the Opéra-Comique in Paris. Mr. Pavarotti’s French may have sounded like French-tinged Italian, but it didn’t matter. The opera has a showpiece aria in which, over a breezy oom-pah-pah accompaniment, Tonio must dispatch nine very exposed high Cs. Other great tenors, like Alfredo Kraus, had excelled in the role. But no one ever tossed off those high Cs with the ease, pinging tone and utter glee of Mr. Pavarotti in those years. He was quickly promoted as the King of the High Cs, and so began his 30-year conquest of the public.

By natural endowment Mr. Pavarotti was essentially a lyric tenor, ideally suited to lighter roles in Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi requiring lyrical grace and agile passagework. Yet his voice, like everything about him, was uncommonly large. With that big throbbing sound, he was tempted into weightier repertory requiring dramatic power and heft, like Calaf in Puccini’s “Turandot.” Some opera purists maintain that Mr. Pavarotti erred by straying from the lyric terrain. Don’t tell that to anyone lucky enough to have heard him sing “Nessun dorma” in his prime, not just as a signature aria for televised stadium concerts, but in the context of a full production of “Turandot.” Wow!

Mr. Pavarotti, who was 19 when he finally began serious studies in voice, could barely read music. In itself this need not have been a problem. Enrico Caruso also had only rudimentary knowledge of music theory, and that didn’t hurt him any. But this deficiency clearly set Mr. Pavarotti apart from Mr. Domingo, who grew up preparing orchestrations for his parents’ zarzuela company.

Still, in singing, knowledge is not enough. Musical instinct is crucial, and Mr. Pavarotti had powerful instincts. He was never as interesting a singer as Mr. Domingo, but at his best he could be inspired and, in his way, profound. Moreover, he genuinely liked performing and pleasing people, which made up for his limited capabilities as an actor.

During the first half of his career he worked hard to compensate for his late start and minimal knowledge. Though he sang only 26 roles on stage, some involved risky ventures into less familiar repertory, like Fernando in Donizetti’s “Favorita,” filled with taxing spans of ornate vocal lines.

Yet ultimately, for all that Mr. Pavarotti gave to opera, it’s hard to avoid feeling that he never completely fulfilled his potential, that he squandered some of his awesome talent by letting his enablers turn him from a hard working artist into an overindulged and sometimes clownish superstar.

In the disappointing last decade of his career he coasted on his talent and popularity. His old friend and colleague Joan Sutherland dropped hints in interviews that he should retire. For me, the low point came in 1997, seven years before his last Met appearances, when he sang a recital on the Met stage as a pension-fund benefit, a program of songs by Schubert, Scarlatti and others, with a few hit arias. He was shockingly unprepared, glued to his music stand even during staples like Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” He tried to sing a selection of lighter Italian songs by Tosti from memory. But his pianist had to feed him the first word or two of nearly every line, as one could hear from Row L. What did this performance say to aspiring singers about the prerogatives of fame and fortune?

But this is a day to remember the glory of Luciano Pavarotti, like the Met’s 1996 production of Giordano’s “Andrea Chénier,” mounted for him. He hardly cut the figure of a dashing revolutionary poet in late-18th-century France. And if he was no longer the King of High Cs, he dispatched some kingly high B flats and a high B that was at least princely. Still, there was revolutionary ardor in the melting warmth, power and urgency of his singing. And there was that sound.