When an international superstar like Italy’s champion tenor Luciano Pavarotti dies, a horse race ensues for posthumous tributes. As Milan’s Corriere della Sera marveled, the first governmental condolences about Pavarotti, who died of pancreatic cancer in Modena, Italy this week at 71, came from the peripatetic, hyper-energetic Nicolas Sarkozy of France, even before Italy’s movers and shakers could be stirred from their early-autumn lethargy. A calculating and astute Northern Italian from Modena, Pavarotti was anything but the cartoon of a carefree, sunny Southern Italian that he projected on CD’s and in public appearances.
Despite allegations of casual musicianship, Pavarotti had many enduring achievements, including a 1967 Deutsche Grammophon DVD of Verdi’s Requiem conducted by Herbert von Karajan, and a Decca CD, also with Karajan, of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Gianandrea Gavazzeni, a true connoisseur of the Italian repertory, conducted CD’s of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana on Decca and L’ amico Fritz on EMI, which are also among Pavarotti’s best.
A characteristically ignorant critic like the always boorish and clueless Manuela Hoelterhoff, an employee of Michael Bloomberg, claims to “shudder with delight” at hearing Pavarotti bellow “Maria” from Bernstein’s West Side Story. Pav’s attempts at pop, like the best-selling Three Tenors Concert, are in fact best appreciated according to the criterion of a champion cyclist I once met, who said he played the Pavarotti CD on his earphones constantly during workouts because the lengthy explosions of applause kept his adrenaline going. The entire concept of “three tenors” is a surreal distortion of what opera is all about; arias written for a solo voice are shamelessly traduced when sung simultaneously by three voices. It should also be recalled that when the elegant Spanish tenor Alfredo Kraus pointed out in 1992 that there were in fact more than three tenors in the world, he was banished—by none other than José Carreras, one of the mighty three—from participation in the musical events around the Barcelona Olympics.
Of Pavarotti’s efforts to share the stage with pop stars—many of which (it must be admitted, to lessen his personal culpability) were done for charity—probably the worst was Pavarotti with the Spice Girls in something called Viva Forever, with a close runner-up being the rock star Sting bleating out Franck’s Panis Angelicus. In other celebrity duets, Pavarotti simply stands or sits onstage with stars, singing in Italian against—rather than with—Barry White and James Brown. That said, Pavarotti’s duet with Meat Loaf on Come Back to Sorrento is not as bad as might be feared. Even when singing New York, New York with Liza Minnelli, Luciano sways anxiously like a grizzy bear on its hind legs, poised for attack.
Pop and schlock apart, Pavarotti’s burnished tone will long echo in our memory, regardless of the crass hype. It is our loss that Pavarotti was unable to imitate the longevity of his mother and father, who lived hale and hearty to the ages of 86 and 89 respectively. Lively and charming, Pavarotti conquered all.