Speight Jenkins remembers Luciano Pavarotti

Despite some mistakes in his later years, says Seattle Opera's director, the ultimate Italian lyric tenor had the single most vital characteristic of greatness: a voice that cannot belong to anyone else.
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Luciano Pavarotti.

Despite some mistakes in his later years, says Seattle Opera's director, the ultimate Italian lyric tenor had the single most vital characteristic of greatness: a voice that cannot belong to anyone else.

The first time Luciano Pavarotti astonished me was in 1972 in Philadelphia. My wife and I had gone there from New York to hear Beverly Sills as Elvira in Bellini's Puritani. Pavarotti was Arturo, one of the most difficult roles ever devised, with high Cs, C sharps, and several D's. No disrespect to Ms. Sills, but he took the performance and totally transfixed the audience. What we heard that night and for the next two-plus decades was the ultimate Italian lyric tenor. Sunshine poured through the clear, perfectly pitched voice. High notes rang easily and true, and his musicianship was extraordinary. He made one smile or gasp just by his ease of delivery. His fullness of sound in all his vocal registers differentiated him from many great lyric tenors who sing the notes wonderfully but much more lightly and without the even projection.

His Metropolitan Opera debut as Rodolfo in La boheme had come earlier, in the fall of 1968. He had come from San Francisco, where he had caught a cold. I remember going up to the standing room on the Grand Tier level and listening only to the first act. It was good but not the voice that I would hear in Philadelphia. Pavarotti followed in the tradition of many great tenors, from Enrico Caruso on, in giving a good but not spectacular performance for his Met debut. The first spectacular Met night came about a month after the Puritani, when he joined with Joan Sutherland for a Daughter of the Regiment. As the artist London Records dubbed "The King of the High C's," he easily knocked off Tonio's "Pour mon ame" with its nine high C's. What was important to me was the melting beauty of the character's lyrical aria.

From the beginning, his was a voice that implanted itself in the listener's memory. How this happens is one of the mysteries of opera, but to me it's the most vital characteristic of greatness: a voice that cannot belong to anyone but its owner. Pavarotti's voice, once heard, could neither be forgotten nor confused with anyone else's. It was not the voice of Jussi Bjoerling, Richard Tucker, Jan Peece, or Carlo Bergonzi: It was only the voice of Luciano Pavarotti.

As the years went on, the high notes were not quite so easy, and roles that demanded high Ds and a lot of C's dropped out of his repertory. He made the decision to move to heavier parts, keeping always the lighter Nemorino in The Elixir of Love as a trademark role. The heavier parts were sometimes great for him: Certainly Cavaradossi in Tosca and Calaf in Turandot were extraordinary. Though Calaf had been the property of more dramatic voices, Pavarotti made "Nessun dorma," Calaf's aria in Act III of Turandot, his theme song. In so doing he overturned a half-century tradition. From the teens of the century, when Caruso recorded the sad clown's aria from Pagliacci, "Vesti la giubba," this had been opera's theme song. Now "Nessun dorma" spells opera to the general public. It might be hard for any opera lover under 40 to believe that "Nessun dorma" was not often heard until Pavarotti made it his own.

Some of his adventures were ill advised; he stretched his lyric tenor too much in Aida, and his Otello was a mistake. But in 1982, James Levine induced him to learn Mozart's Idomeneo. He conquered that florid part brilliantly, showing his musicianship and his great finesse. No composer exposes weaknesses in a singer like Mozart, and as Idomeneo, Pavarotti seemed to have none. Those performances are some of my most treasured recollections of his art.

He gave stunning recitals – two or three programs often repeated – but to hear him in the 1970s sing in a room as large as the Metropolitan Opera was unforgettable. By then his clutched large handkerchief had become part of the Pavarotti persona, and audiences loved it.

As a man, he only presented the persona of the cheerful, lovable Italian tenor to the public. He became a legitimate media star, appearing on Johnny Carson's show and all the television networks. He made a movie. He and his handkerchief became synonymous with opera all over the world. But at least in interviews – and I conducted quite a few of them with him – his undeniable charm never revealed much about himself. Unlike most artists I have known, there was no private side available. Most singers talk to their colleagues or to friendly press privately, off the record. Not Pavarotti. I can say nothing more about him personally than can those who have read what was written about him in the press, something that I would not say about any opera singer of the last 35 years who has had a major American career.

His years presenting amplified concerts in huge arenas, his Three Tenors extravaganzas, his lack of interest in the last 15 years in acting when he did appear on stage – all of these added to his finances but did nothing for his name. At that point, however, it made no difference. He had established himself as something way beyond opera; Barbara Streisand or Tom Hanks had no more fame. People wanted to hear and see him whatever he did, and the stage persona was so great that however he sang, the audience loved it.

In the end, the criticisms didn't matter. We who were able to hear him from the late 1960s through the late '80s had the chance to hear one of the great tenor voices of all time, a sound of solid gold, in whatever carat the music required, with a clarity of Italian that defined the language of Dante. His recordings will forever perpetuate his legacy; his treatment of his repertory should serve as a lesson to all who follow.


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