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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."


Anonymous said...

The article is brilliant. I knew that you don't like the Three tenors project, but you gave a very ‘balanced’ and profound portrayal of Pavarotti. I didn’t know about his great services to belcanto. Perhaps because I knew him only as one of the Tree tenors – he was shown on the Russian TV for the first time in the 1990’s. I also remember his duets with rock stars (Bono from ‘U-2’). They preformed a good song together, but the general impression was that Pavarotti was a ‘ pop-star' among opera singers. Even when I listened to him singing opera or concerts ,the Tree tenors came to mind.
Anyway, his voice is of rare beauty, a truly ‘golden’ voice, and with his ability to sing many high C’s he made a very strong impression. Besides, his ‘presence’ and personality on stage was powerful – all this is enough to be a great tenor. Perhaps, to know what a great tenor he was it’s better to listen to his early recordings.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your comment! How nice to hear from you again! Yes, you have it, I believe. It was a wonderful voice, even though it did darken and get a little ragged around the edges later on. But that is common. He did perform a great service for bel canto doubt about that. The old style of singing such operas as "The Daughter of The Regiment" and "I Puritani" would not have been acceptable in the 20th century. It took extraordinary singers who could sing full voice in arias as demanding as the big arias in those operas. It took the voices of Pavarotti and Sutherland to bring these masterpieces alive for a modern audience, and that, for me, justifies a career. There were certainly things about Pavarotti that I, and others, did not particularly like, but that is irrelevant. He was a great tenor and an impressive personality. That's more than enough for one man! :D Thanks again for the comment.

corax said...

a delicate topic here -- delicate in the dilemma it presents: do i strive to be charitable, or do i maintain my professional integrity here?

you good sir have avoided both scylla and charybdis, and my hat is off to you. it is not surprisingly done, but masterfully.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much indeed, my friend. I really appreciate your comment. Yes, it is so very difficult to write on this particular topic. I avoided it for the longest time, and yes, your analogy is exact: ever watchful of the whirlpool, the encroaching flashing teeth emerging from the cave are all too easy to miss. Many see Pavarotti as THE tenor, and much of the reputation-especially at the beginning--would seem to support that idea. I am grateful, very much so. I do so adore bel canto, and while such full-throated bravura many not be historically correct, it worked for the 20th century, and just when I--and others--had given up and decided it must be Cavalleria Rusticana and Paglicci forever, light burst through. For that, Luciano, Thank you and God bless you!

JD Hobbes said...

I agree with your assessment and think you handled it very well. I have heard rumors about Pavarotti's personal life that support what you say was a zest for life and popularity in a larger-than-life character. And I do agree about his latter days in trying to be a crossover singer like Bocelli. The same thing happened when Mario Lanza, Lawrence Tibbet and others discovered movies and the quick money and easy fame that came with broad exposure.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Mr. Hobbes, as always. I appreciate your comment, and your reference to Lanza and Tibbett is exact. Broad exposure indeed, which can sometimes be a mixed blessing! In the old days, it was an accepted practice for a singer to retire at a certain point and open a studio and accept some good students. That is a well-known and respected post retirement occupation. The world of popular music has plenty of expert performers:)

JING said...

Perceptive, wonderful writing, Edmund. Your thoughts on Pavarotti's fame got me thinking about the Australian wit Clive James and his "Fame in the 20th Century" (TV series and coffee table book). He makes a strong (and funny) case for the notion that fame, as we experience it today, is really a very 20th century phenomenon - having a great deal to do with speed of communication, clash of cultures, and other factors that have arisen in the modern world. He says fame can be totally detached from any form of talent whatsoever. But creating fame may now have become a talent in and of itself.(Paris Hilton?) He quotes Rilke: "Fame is the sum total of all the midsunderstandings that can gather around one name." I like your mention of Tony Curtis - fame indeed has to be managed - for better or for worse.

I found myself surprised and very moved by the brief reflections from Juan Diego Florez about calling Pavarotti right before going on stage in "Fille" - really very touching - his wonder and gratitude to Pavarotti and the older tenor's selfless encouragement. They both emerge from that encounter as immensely appealing human beings. Thanks Edmund!!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your comments! Much appreciated, as always. What you have to say about fame per se is interesting and very much to the point. It is indeed a fairly recent phenomenon, and I would venture that it reflects the technological advances in the communications media as much as anything else. Any technology can be manipulated, for better or for worse. And yes, it certainly can be made to create a show business creature who is nothing but fame. (Lady Gaga, perhaps?) Of course, in Pavarotti's case, it accompanied prodigious vocal talent. That, to recall The Wizard of Oz, is a horse of a different color:D
Thanks again for your always-astute comments.

Gioacchino Fiurezi-Maragioglio said...

It is a little hard, to write about Pavarotti. You are correct, let us focus on the young Luciano Pavarotti, let us watch with diminished interest after 1985, and, after 1990, let us smile politely and say nothing.

My main problem with Pavarotti is his characterizations were not good after about 1970. His early Arturo, Rodolfo and Tonio were actually reasonable characterizations, but into the 1970s and he seemed only to concentrate on singing.

I also add that the partnership between Luciano Pavarotti and Dame Joan Sutherland was wonderful because of the brilliant recordings they made: they were often pure vocalists, not attempting to build characters, but these recordings are the complete scores and make a good reference.

Edmund StAustell said...

Very well said, my friend! It was pretty much the same here. Public interest in Pavarotti began to decline, largely as a result of over-exposure. The "Three Tenors" business had the unfortunate effect of of trivializing his art. Some people began to consider him "lazy." But, nevertheless, as you correctly observe, the early Pavarotti was a wonder!

Verdiwagnerite said...

Thank you once again,very interesting article on Pavarotti. It's interesting to note that Richard Bonynge picked him to tour Australia with Sutherland and company in 1965. In Australia at the time this was an incredibly important tour. I think it was Sutherland's first extensive time back home since the great success of Lucia at covent Garden in 1959. Pavarotti got exposure and his career was off on it's upward trajectory. I also gather he learned quite a lot from Sutherland about supporting the voice with correct abdominal muscle support. It's a pity he got diverted by the fame game. But a beautiful voice nonetheless.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes, you make good points; the role of Sutherland and her husband in promoting Pavarotti cannot be over-estimated. They were a crucial influence, and also, importantly, they stoked the flames of bel canto once again, a great and important contribution to opera, which had for so many years been held captive by verismo.