Thursday, September 06, 2007

R.I.P. Luciano Pavarotti: The Golden Voice

Luciano Pavarotti died tonight (Thursday morning Italian time) of pancreatic cancer. He was 71.

And so another of my childhood icons passes on...This loss feels even more personal, though, because Pavarotti was virtually a member of my family household when I was growing up. My earliest memories are filled with his golden voice on LP, waking me up on weekend mornings to the strains of "La donna è mobile." I saw him twice in live concert during the '80s, watched him more times than I can count on PBS' Great Performances, and even got carted along by my parents to a very silly movie called "Yes, Giorgio" in which the Pav starred as an opera singer in mid-career crisis who romances an attractive female doctor treating him for a throat ailment. (The one thing I remember vividly about the movie is that I cried at the end when the lady walks out as he's performing "Nessun dorma" at the Met - because I thought she was leaving him. To this day I don't know what her exit actually signified, although my parents tried to reassure me that she was not saying "No, Giorgio" but merely taking a walk to cool her head.)

He may not have been the greatest tenor of all time, or even of his time. But in my mind - and in many others - there is no question that he had the most beautiful tenor voice of all time, for all time. There was nothing like it before him (no, not even Caruso, or Jussi Björling, or Franco Corelli), and I can't imagine anything like it coming again. And the fact remains that Pavarotti was also blessed with remarkable natural musicianship, a matchless gift for lyric phrasing that served him equally well in bel canto arias and Neopolitan folk songs.

He was, as well, a canny businessman with a genius for self-promotion and marketing, and this aspect of his life and personality has tended to eclipse his genuine brilliance as a musician. He was one of the most successful "crossover" artists who ever lived, and this kind of success usually comes at a certain price among the cognoscenti who bemoan the dumbing down or dilution of great art. And then there are the other criticisms, most of them aimed at the latter half of his career: He got lazy. He cut corners, lip-synched, and insisted on delaying retirement even after his voice had clearly deteriorated. He was no good as a dramatic singer, and no good with languages other than Italian - in stark contrast to his chief rival, the much more cerebral, disciplined, yet also more artistically ambitious Placido Domingo. He was a womanizer, despite his ever-increasing bulk, and dumped his loyal wife of three decades for a woman much younger than himself. Etc., etc.

And yet none of this matters a damn once you've heard him sing. (Well, pre-2000, anyway; for no particular reason, though perhaps a subconscious one, I stopped listening to him after about that time, so I never heard him in his decline.) While he was probably at his peak as a pure opera singer during the 1970s, I think his voice actually became more gorgeous during the '80s. Though my dad says there was a brief period where he bottomed out, thereafter it became richer, smoother, more luscious, if less pointed and, arguably, less passionate. Less passionate because he made everything sound so effortless. His voice, as my parents and I sometimes discussed, seemed to get wider, even into the '90s - wide like the sea, on a calm and sunny day.

Maybe this reflected the change that was happening in his career as he became ever more popular. From the "Three Tenors" to a seemingly endless line of CDs he produced that were the equivalent of "Opera for Dummies" (still great singing on them, though), he was beginning to settle into a cushy groove. No matter how the critics might carp, he still had a million-dollar voice and smile, and he had the love of the people. He was a man of considerable personal charm, which he knew how to turn on max for his adoring public. I still remember his 1991 Hyde Park concert, when he offered, as an encore, an aria from Puccini's Manon Lescaut - "Donna non vidi mai," or, he translated it, "I have never seen a woman like that." A pause, appreciative laughter from the crowd, and then: "With your permission, I would like to dedicate it to the Lady Diana." Enthusiastic applause, followed by a beguiling performance of a meltingly romantic aria, in front of a crowd of thousands, as a tribute to one of the most famous beauties in the world. That was Pavarotti as I'll always remember him. Perhaps somewhere, in another state of being, he's singing for Diana again.

In his honor, here are my Top Ten Pavarotti Arias (i.e., the arias that Pavarotti sang best and made his own). These are not tied to a particular performance, but in all cases I'm thinking of him singing it at his best.

10. "Recondita armonia" from Puccini's Tosca. I actually don't like Tosca much, and I got heartily sick of this particular aria as a kid after having to listen to a tape cassette my dad made of a dozen different tenors singing it. But even then, I always thought Pav did it best. (Domingo does a better "E lucevan le stelle," though.)
9. "Una furtiva lagrima" from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore: Such a melancholy love-song, it took me years to accept that in the context of the opera it is not meant to be taken seriously at all.
8. "Questa o quella" from Verdi's Rigoletto: Short, simple, and utterly seductive.
7. "Ingemisco" from Verdi's Requiem: Ok, this is cheating since the Requiem technically isn't an opera. But good lord, it basically is. I listened to this track first after I read the sad news. It seemed somehow appropriate.
6. "Di quella pira" from Verdi's Il Trovatore: Get an early recording of this (mine's circa 1969-70, remastered by Decca so quality is excellent) - Pavarotti in his younger days sings with genuine fire and brio, and hits the high C's out of the park.
5. "La donna è mobile" from Rigoletto: See note for "Questa o quella." This was my favorite song as a kid. I'm not joking - I knew it better than anything by Madonna or Michael Jackson. Along with "O sole mio," Pavarotti could probably sing it in his sleep, but he always infused it with a delightful sunniness that belies the caddish lyrics.
4."Vesti la giubba" from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci: Melodramatic as they come, but he makes it simply tragic by not overemoting and just singing to bring out the painful beauty of the melodic line.
3. "Cielo et mar" from Ponchielli's La Gioconda: The title of the aria means "Sky and sea." No title, and no music either, was ever better suited to Pavarotti's type of voice.
2. "Che gelida manina" from Puccini's La Bohème: Possibly the most romantic aria ever written. Pav spins it into pure gold.
1. "Nessun dorma" from Puccini's Turandot; Even before "Yes, Giorgio," this aria always brought tears to my eyes - but only when Pavarotti sang it.

Requiescat in pace, Pavarotti. For the peace you've given so many souls, you've earned your own many times over.


Blogger Danusha said...

Hi, Lylee.

I saw your comment on the New York Times board and came here to read your tribute.

I'm all broken up at Luciano Pavarotti's death.

I am surfing the web, reading tributes, leaving posts here and there.

It's hard to say what I really feel -- that the world is a lesser place without Pavarotti -- that his God-given, uniquely beautiful voice was just part of his appeal -- his great soul was his voice's magic carpet -- that I've been crying on and off all day -- that though I sing only at home alone he is my role model as an artist -- all that is hard to say.

I don't feel qualified to speak. I love opera but hardcore opera fans can be so well informed and seem to be able to hear things that are inaudible to me. I'm just not accomplished enough to be certified as an opera fan. And I lack the detailed knowledge to provide a precis of Pavarotti's career.

I just, very firmly feel that the world is a lesser place without him, and it's not his voice that makes that so, it is his soul.

Danusha Goska

7:11 PM  
Blogger lylee said...

Thanks for sharing, Danusha. I feel your sorrow. When I heard the news late last night, it was as if a family member had died. I know my parents felt the same way - my mom said she nearly cried. And then just reading everyone's comments made me realize it wasn't just us. As you note, he was more than just a beautiful voice - whatever his flaws as a musician or a man (and I'm no expert in either department), he loved people, the world, as much as they loved him, and wanted to give his gift to them all. His reward is the outpouring we're seeing now. A great light has indeed gone out.

12:44 AM  
Blogger Danusha said...

Lylee, thanks for responding.

I think it says on your blog that you like imdb?

On the Pavarotti board there, I asked, "If Pavarotti were a movie star, who would he be?"

I asked because we associate celebrity with movie stars, and yet our movie stars today tend to be *cool* -- thin, blond, aloof.

Whereas Pavarotti was larger than life, expansive, generous.

Maybe Judy Garland, another singer. She, too, was a performer who gave audiences her all.

10:18 AM  

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