Sunday, March 27, 2011
Luciano Pavarotti: The Artist And The Persona
For reasons I am not quite sure of, there are three tenors I find it hard to write about: Caruso, Pavarotti and Domingo. I am not sure why. I did finally write about Caruso last year, when I finally found the key for the discussion, and that turned out to be the fact that he was the first media triumph in the history of American classical singers. I know he was Italian, by birth, but he quickly became Amerca's tenor, lived here, married here, and had his great career at the Met while under contract to RCA Victor. Many singers of Italian background were to follow, in all kinds of music, from Galli-Curci right up through Mario Lanza, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. But what about the modern tenors Domingo and Pavarotti? My instincts tell me there is something other than music at work in both cases, and it's just plain tough to get one's head around the voice and artistry per se, without taking many other things into consideration.
There are two reactions a foreign singer can have when he or she lands in America and determines to make their career here. One is to retain an old-world elegance and artistic seriousness, and the other is to discover American show business, and the enormous money to be made there. A good example of a great tenor who retained his artistic seriousness and personal dignity was Giuseppe Giacomini. And he paid the price for it in America. He was basically elbowed out of the country's opera scene, back to Italy and Austria, where he was greatly respected. He did not, you see, play the celebrity game. Tony Curtis once said that fame is a separate career, and if you want to be a famous artist, you must dedicate as much or more time to the cultivation of fame as to your art per se. I imagine you can see where I am going with this: I respect the great voice of Luciano Pavarotti, the near-manic energy he poured into his career in America, and the magnificent effort on his behalf to restore bel canto (for which I, for one, remain eternally grateful!). He did all these things. He was a wonderful tenor, with an uncommonly good voice, with a top range matched only by some of the greatest tenors of all time, such as Lauri-Volpi. All this I grant. He also strove relentlessly to make himself famous, and could, on occasion, play to the gallery in a way that some serious opera lovers found annoying. He was very big, extremely fat and projected a jovial, near-riotous ebullience at times. In a word, he played to the American stereotype of opera tenors.
I believe that Pavarotti's greatest contribution to opera seria was his dedication, along with that of Dame Joan Sutherland, to the badly needed revitalization of bel canto. Here is a 4 minute segment from a BBC documentary on La Fille du Regiment. (As a bonus, we get a brief glimpse of Juan Diego Florez at the end:
Of course, great bel canto artists of the 19th century would seldom if ever sing those high notes full voice. The voix mixte was the approved French method of singing notes above the staff. In this clip, the music critic's remarks and obvious enthusiasm were typical of the way the young Pavarotti was received. To be able to sing so high, with such force! I still remember the New York Times article that followed his premiere performance of La Fille du Regiment in New York. The full page article, with large-point headlines at the top, declared "MAMMA MIA, WHAT A TENOR!" It was shortly afterwards that we were treated to an album, with a picture of a sea pirate on the cover, with the title "King Of The High C's" (To be read, obviously, as" King of the High Seas.")
From the very beginning, then, there was this aura of excess, ebullience, physical strength, and enormous physical presence (of the 350-pound variety!) Everything about Luciano Pavarotti was big, big, big. Part of the artistic price paid for this was that he, like his predecessor Enrico Caruso, sang monochromatically. There were very few colors in the voice, the singing was hardly elegant, and it was sometimes unmusical. Many in the audience were coming to hear the fat man sing very high, as loud as he could. That was how it all began, with the nearly unsingable "Pour mon âme," with its many notorious high C sharps, almost always sung down a half tone. Not that Pavarotti couldn't sing above C. He did, often, especially in the great bel canto favorite "A te, o cara," from I Puritani."
By 1972, it had been a long time since audiences had been treated to this kind of voice in I Puritani! This kind of full-throated singing, up to such an altitude, harkens back to the days of Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. Bravo, Luciano! How much he gave, how much he did, to restore bel canto opera to its appropriate place in the repertoire! For this, every lover of great and beautiful singing should be eternally grateful! I know that I am!
As the career went on, the voice of course began to darken somewhat, and Pavarotti began to make what I consider the classic mistake. He took on heavier roles. There is a kind of confused thinking that seems to take over a tenor's mind when his voice begins to decline, and that is to think that because the voice has darkened in color, and the luster has gone off the top notes, and the uppermost top notes are no longer there, that it is time to start singing Manrico, Rhadames, Calaf, and Chenier! Whoa! That is to miss the main point, is it not? The voice has begun to lose its color, sheen, squillo and range in the first place because of all the demands that have been placed upon it! Hardly the time to start thinking that somehow this makes it appropriate to sing Andrea Chenier! All that does is hasten the decline of the voice. But, be that as it may, that is what Pavarotti began to do, in the 1970's, with predictable results. He was hardly the first, and I'm sure he will not be the last, unfortunately.
One ambition that never abandoned him was the lust for fame, however. The TV talk shows were still there. I once saw him on Johnny Carson, trading jibes with Loretta Lynn, probably the greatest female country music singer of all time. Great exposure for her, maybe not so great for him. I can remember her saying, "You know, y'all are FUN!" Yes. I'm sure he was. Then there were the "Three Tenors," about which I will say nothing, and of course the famous "Nessun Dorma," which became the theme song of the Italian national soccer team in their quest for 1st in the world championships. This got picked up later in the movie Bend it Like Beckham when the Pakistani-British girl soccer player, toward the end of the movie, made her big penalty kick to the accompaniment of "Nessun Dorma," and of course made the winning goal. More recently, we have been treated to a female food-fight in Drew Barrymore's premier directorial effort, "Whip It," when two opposing girls' roller derby teams start beating each other up to the accompaniment of "Di Quella Pira." This kind of thing can spread. In any case, Pavarotti began marching straight into show business. He and Frank Sinatra became friends, and it seemed, toward the end, that he had begun to wish he were Andrea Bocelli, doing duets with Italian rock stars like Zucchero. The end was near.
I want to stress, finally, that which was best, which is to say that which rose to heights sufficient to match the extraordinary fame. That would be the first half of the very long career, when the Great Pavarotti (and he WAS a great singer!) took himself and his art seriously, and when he brought a huge amount of attention to opera in this country, in the same way Mario Lanza and Caruso did. What he and Joan Sutherland did for bel canto simply cannot be over-estimated. Two of the greatest voices of the twentieth century, given to singing, brilliantly, some of the greatest 19th century operas ever written! Think of it! Yes, for this he deserves our undying admiration. As to the rest, who cares? As the great American poet Ezra Pound once said, "What thou lovest best remains; the rest is dross."
at 12:05 PM