Saturday, September 8, 2007

Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007)

This past Thursday, Luciano Pavarotti died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. When I heard the news, I immediately remembered the first time I ever heard Pavarotti sing, some thirty years ago. Thirty years is a long time, but this particular memory is still fresh, as though it had happened yesterday. It was a Sunday morning at my Aunt Yvonne’s house. She had taped the weekly Opera Hour radio show for me the previous evening, because she knew I’d be spending the night at my Uncle Julian’s, and that particular grid was scheduled for a night-long power outage. (Ah, the joys of dictatorship… may every member of the Junta rot in hell!) The floor had just been mopped, and so was a little humid, giving off a peculiar but pleasant smell, a mixture of bleach and lemon soap, that I still associate with Uruguay. The tape player had a reoccurring squeak, a byproduct of my having dropped it a few months before, and because it was a one-speaker model, the sound had a tinny quality that made every tape played on it sound like it was recorded in the 1920’s.

We never knew what we were going to hear during Opera Hour, but the host, Barrett Puig (he and my Aunt Blanche had been college classmates – I don’t know why that’s worth mentioning, but there you go), was meticulous about playing a healthy mixture of old and new recordings. The new recordings that day consisted of the phenomenal Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov’s rendition of “Oh, chi piange?” from Verdi’s “Nabucco” (it’s an astounding tour-de-force performance that may warrant its own entry in the not-too-distant future) and Pavarotti’s rendition of “Ah mes amis, quel jour de fête… Pour mon âme” from Donizetti’s “La fille du régiment.” Although I was familiar with Donizetti’s work, having already learned “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “L’elisir d’amore” by heart (I was and still am a dork), I was completely unfamiliar with this particular opera, and was furthermore puzzled by the fact that an Italian composer would produce an opera in French. Regardless, the aria in question is notable for requiring the singer to hit nine high C’s – yes, nine! Vocal pyrotechnics aside, what impressed me the most about Pavarotti was the quality of his voice. It was unique, unlike any tenor voice I had heard before or since, with a fluidity that belied its enormous breadth and power.

One of the most distinctive characteristics of Pavarotti’s voice was the beauty of his timbre, pretty much throughout his register. His low notes were full and didn’t possess that unpleasant, “breathy” quality that’s pretty common among lyric tenors. His high notes had plenty of that most desired of all qualities, squillo – it’s a kind of pinging resonance, and it’s sorely lacking amongst most current-day singers. Pavarotti’s strident squillo allowed him to excel in heroic rôles usually reserved for dramatic tenors; his “Di quella pira” is, in my opinion, among the five best versions ever sung. But the middle register is where the beauty of Pavarotti’s voice really shone through, especially during his prime, when his legato was astonishingly smooth, on a par with those of Lauri-Volpi and Vanzo, my measuring sticks for all questions regarding tenors’ legato. If I were to take things a step further (my specialty) and dissect Pavarotti’s voice further, I would say that my favourite subsection is the upper portion of his middle register when articulating the vowel “e” – in English, it’s the “eh” sound. The criminally forgotten masterpiece aria “Angelo casto e bel,” from Donizetti’s “Il Duca D’Alba,” showcases that glorious “e” sound. Listen for it when he sings, “Angelo casto e bel” or “A lei le gioie” – it is unique, beautiful, and unmistakable:

During the second half of his long and illustrious career, Pavarotti branched out into the commercial mainstream, making a few cheesy but enjoyable movies, holding myriad benefit concerts in which he sang with the likes of Bono, Sting, Mariah Carey (ggggrrrrrroooowwwwllllll !!!), Bryan Adams, and even the Spice Girls (yikes!), and participating in the enormously successful “The Three Tenors” concerts with fellow operatic giants Plácido Domingo and José Carreras. These concerts illustrate the seldom-matched musicality of Pavarotti’s voice – while both Domingo and Carreras are phenomenal singers, every time the three tenors sang the same song in polyphonic sequence, Pavarotti’s voice shone out, being much more resonant, crystalline, and mellifluous.

Opera singers tend to abuse their voices over the course of their careers, so it’s very common for their voices to develop a wobble and an astringent, foghorn-like asperity as they get on in years. Although Pavarotti lost quite a bit of his phenomenal range, especially in the upper register, his voice retained most of its beauty until the very end of his career. I had the privilege of seeing him in concert in 1985 and again in 2001, and aside from having developed a few obnoxious, crowd-pleasing traits (the unnecessary and ridiculously exaggerated trill in the second verse of “O sole mio” comes to mind), he was in glorious form both times. Many purists make it a point to belittle Pavarotti’s enormous popularity – this is somewhat akin to a thriving metal band suddenly achieving mainstream success only to have all the hard-core metalheads accuse them of “selling out” – but in spite of his numerous and oftentimes unfortunate forays into popular music, Pavarotti remained true to his vocation, not giving up his opera career until illness made it impossible for him to maintain his heavy touring schedule. I happen to consider myself a purist, and my opinion is that on Thursday, the world lost a musical giant, and the last Great Tenor we’ll probably ever see.

I’ll close this little tribute blurb by including what I consider to be Pavarotti’s greatest recording, a seldom-heard version of “A te, o cara” from Bellini’s “I Puritani” – his legato is impeccable, his use of glissando is exquisite, and his voice is as sweet and smooth-flowing as golden honey.

Rest in peace, Luciano.

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