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Luciano Pavarotti (October 12, 1935 – September 6, 2007): a brief appreciation

Luciano Pavarotti is likely to be remembered for many reasons: for being one third of the Three Tenors, his tone and timbre, his distinctive figure, his ability to almost caricaturise the archetypical tenor with a drooping white handkerchief, his popular appeal that could draw crowds to fill football stadia to hear opera, his humanitarian work and, his now classic recording of Nessun Dorma.

Music lovers will forever debate who should be counted amongst the truly great singers of all time. Regarding tenors the debate is particularly harsh: Caruso and Gigli undoubtedly make the list, but so too might artists as diverse as Jon Vickers, Peter Pears, Giuseppe di Stefano, Franco Corelli or Alfredo Kraus. The point is that every voice has its own nuances to offer. The two tenors with whom Luciano collaborated most famously, Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo, have their own star qualities, be they feeling for text or exploration of the psychological depths of many of operas greatest roles. Luciano Pavarotti is thought by some to fall short of his colleagues in these two facets of his art, but to focus entirely on these points is perhaps to miss his greatest contributions to operatic performance.

These, I would say, were his near-effortless ringing tone in the upper register, something that was still evident until fairly late on in his career. Even in darker passages or roles his tone could only be described as uplifting, Pavarotti’s voice was instantly recognisable for its pliancy and heart on sleeve emotional honesty. The second quality I would pick out was Pavarotti’s ability to characterise. Restrain any surprise for a moment; I’m referring to his facial acting, not that of his bodily acting. Aware no doubt of the limitations caused by his physical size, he chose to focus much of the expression of the role into the face, which, as luck would have it, proved to be a remarkably versatile vehicle for him. Indeed, as a singing student, I was often encouraged to watch films of Pavarotti’s performances – and those of others – as a means to realising the range of expression that is possible whilst singing.

It is some good fortune that Luciano lived through the peak period of the recording industry, for most of his major roles and artistic collaborations are preserved for posterity. The best of them though come from earlier in his career, when his voice could seemingly do almost anything asked of it. He himself was particularly proud of the Idomeneo recorded under Sir John Pritchard’s baton. He was indeed a stylish Mozartian. Pollione in Bellini’s Norma proved useful in collaboration with Joan Sutherland, as did much else. Verdi and Puccini though proved the backbone of his stage repertoire: La Traviata, I Pagliacci (the earlier recordings of both are to be preferred) and Il trovatore coupled La Boheme – arguably his best recording of which is a live version conducted by Carlos Kleiber though the studio version under Karajan is noteworthy also – to each prove special in their own way.

For a tenor often thought to stick too much to the mainstream, evidence is in the recordings to suggest an investigative streak: a recording of ‘alternative’ Verdi arias for Sony CBS with Abbado, a controversial Otello with Solti, and the Requiems of Donizetti and Berlioz might be taken as examples of this. Yet it was in Verdi’s Requiem his plaintive tenor came into its own, both under Solti and, later, recorded live under Muti for EMI. Missed opportunities? Most tantalising perhaps was the prospect of a Pavarotti Lohengrin, which he told the late Michael Oliver about in an interview for Gramophone. It seems lack of time to study the score was one of the few obstacles in his way. Of all the Wagnerian tenor roles it is the one that would have suited his voice the best: Wagner’s markings take in the full range of dynamics, and with its mixture of ardour, valiance and mystery there is a far amount that Luciano might have found appealing within the score.

Luciano was of course just as generous towards lighter music in his career. Recordings exist featuring collaborations with the likes of Henry Mancini. The songs of Tosti played a similar role for him as the Neapolitan song had done for di Stefano years earlier. A late recording with Leone Magiera at the piano shows Luciano’s care for Tosti at its most extensive; but already the voice shows signs of needing more preparation before the notes ring forth. All of which was to form a firm basis for ventures such as "Pavarotti and Friends" and "The Three Tenors" concerts. Of the Three Tenors concerts I have little doubt that the original was the best. Having just been reissued in a deluxe 2 DVD set you can hear that all three were still in superb vocal shape. As an event, a far cry from high art it might be, but need one care so much? Luciano’s personal charisma and popularity was carefully employed to break down the stuffiness of the classical music establishment which at times can do it more harm than good. Yet for about three brief seconds in the encore of Nessun dorma, when Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras join together for the final fortissimo Vincero! you hear a near ideal tenor sound – a rich baritonal hue from Domingo, a slight and pleasing nasality from Carreras, and a golden openness from Luciano completes the palette. That quality, once heard, cannot fail to lift the spirits and raise a smile even on the most dismal day.

Evan Dickerson


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