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Vol. LXI, No. 38
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
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Record Review

Heart and Humanity: Pavarotti on the Summit

Stuart Mitchner

When Luciano Pavarotti, who died at 71 on September 6, lay in state, a drawing by his youngest daughter, four-year-old Alice, was placed above his head, “in accordance with his wishes.”

If you could imagine a vocal version of Alice’s drawing you’d have something resembling the recital given one morning by our next-door neighbor’s six-year-old daughter. She was sitting on the back deck alone, swinging her legs, and singing. At least “singing” will have to do. I don’t think there’s a word in the dictionary that could capture the charming atonality and random rightness of the happy sounds she was finding in herself (or in the air, it almost seemed) and setting loose on this sunny spring morning. She was making up a song according to some scale and sequence of her own, singing what she felt and what she felt was simply happy. She wasn’t showing off for her parents or her sister. The swinging of her legs seemed to set a sort of a tempo as she sent the sounds up, down, and all around, doing with her voice something like what Pavarotti’s daughter was doing with her crayon. Just another form of sketching the way kids do it, artlessly, with that freedom Picasso sought and must have had in mind when he said, “It takes a very long time to become young.”

Until I noticed the detail of the child’s drawing in press reports of Pavarotti’s funeral, my intention had been to contrast the charm of song and singing at the earliest, most sublimely spontaneous level (the little girl next door), and then move on up to Pavarotti with some stops along the way that would take in a whole spectrum of voices that move us either for range and style or emotional depth, whether it’s Billie Holiday or John Lennon, Al Jolson or Van Morrison.

What I realize after sampling some early Pavarotti is that he’d already somehow absorbed it all: the spontaneity of the child and the expressive power that constitutes great singing in any genre, and on top of that, sheer technical prowess. A devastating combination. All you have to do is see Pavarotti smile and you know that he didn’t need to learn how to become young. The combination of vocal mastery and youthful spirit can be heard on Pavarotti/Donizetti (London 417 638-2), and nowhere more impressively than in his most famous performance, “Pour mon âme” from La Fille du régiment, wherein he hits nine high Cs. That feat earned him the title King of the High Cs, but what he’s accomplished is more than a mere triumph of technique; the performance soars because of the giddy, lilting, free-spirited way he goes about it. The royal title only cheapens his greatness, conjuring up an image of the sort of pompous, bloated virtuoso Bugs Bunny tortures in a Looney Tunes delight, where, disguised as Leopold Stokowski, Bugs makes the fat red-faced tenor hold a note beyond all human endurance. When Pavarotti hits those Cs it’s hard to sit still; you feel like dancing around and waving your arms; you become, in other words, a kid. It’s the irrepressible youthful joyfulness in the man that makes you love him in spite of all the warts enumerated in Bernard Holland’s New York Times obituary.

I haven’t verified this fact with the Guinness Web site, but surely we can trust Holland’s claim that Pavarotti holds the world record for the most curtain calls for a single performance. It’s hard to fathom how someone who was accused of being an indifferent or lazy actor could prompt 165 curtain calls. That would mean something like a solid hour of applause. It’s always amusing to think of the accepted stereotype of the hi-brow, low-brow audience, the disparity between the adoring cries of the dressed-to-the-nines opera crowd and arena-rock pandemonium, but no rocker I ever heard of had people standing up and shouting for 165 curtain calls. Just listen to the screaming of the crowd at La Scala after Pavarotti’s “Che gelida manina” aria in a 1979 performance of La Bohème on YouTube. If you closed your eyes, you’d be hard put to tell the howls of the bravo crowd from the adolescent mayhem of an Ozzfest; either way, the volume level is over the top. No doubt the same evening-dress fanatics whose delirium froze the action in La Bohème were appalled to see their hero demean himself by sharing the same stage with everyone from James Brown to Meat Loaf to the Spice Girls. Again, his ease in such mixed company is explained by the same zest for life and youthful energy that makes him so much more than “the greatest tenor since Caruso” or “the King of the High Cs.” He could take the stage with anyone at no loss of dignity because he valued humanity over dignity and contained many times more than his weight in what we call, for lack of a better word, heart.

Larger Than Death

Larger than life — if anyone was, it was Pavarotti. As for the warts, the cancelled engagements, the humiliation of being booed in the same La Scala that cheered him so wildly, posterity will balance all that out. Life offers the material and death develops and dresses up the story — which makes death the author, editor, rewrite person, publicist, critic, all in one. Death also acts as the press agent, sending multitudes, from opera lovers to relative ignoramuses like myself, in search of CDs, DVDs, YouTube clips, to see what Luciano Pavarotti was all about, to weigh the apparent dimensions of the reputation with the recorded evidence. At the same time, death has sent his enlightened listeners to their favorite recordings while inspiring the inevitable debate online and in bars or living rooms or concert halls or bedrooms about such issues as whether he “wasted” his talent, or demeaned himself by slumming with pop stars.

My guess is that many of the people surfing through the dizzying assortment of YouTube performances are like me in that they may have a Pavarotti anthology from the 1980s lying around somewhere. Most likely, they’ve never seen him perform in person but have an affection for the image of the big man with his huge white flag of a handkerchief in one hand as he climbs the mountain of another aria. That big hanky was a brilliant piece of stagecraft. In case you doubted that he was aware of his human appeal, when he mopped his brow it was as good as saying, “Look, the great man sweats, he works at this, it ain’t easy.” Singing your heart out may not be blue collar, but it’s hard to imagine a more exalted form of labor.

Life and Death

If you think the hyperbole about mountains and death seems extreme, take a look at the YouTube segment of Pavarotti singing his signature aria, “Nessun dorma” from Turandot. This is the music they played at his funeral, the music that will forever be associated with his rendition of it when Italy won the 1990 World Cup (it’s become a soccer anthem). Death is key to the plot. The beautiful princess Turandot has sworn to have any man who desires her beheaded. But her father, the Emperor, has decreed that a suitor solving three riddles wins her hand. Pavarotti’s character solves the riddles, but Turandot refuses to be “given away.” The suitor nobly offers to let her off the hook if she can discover his name before dawn; if she can, he will be put to death. Turandot commands that “Nessun dorma” (“no man shall sleep”) until the name is discovered. For melodic splendor, the heart of the aria is when Pavarotti sings that his secret will remain within him (“Ma il mio mistero è chiuso in me”), but he comes to the mountaintop when he sings, three times, vincerò (“I shall win”). Watching Pavarotti achieve the last amazing vincerò (not a high C, but a high B) is an experience in itself. When he comes back down from the summit, the dazed look isn’t for show. He’s obviously shaken by the effort. It’s as if he’s come back to earth, having tasted death and lived to tell the tale — lived to tear away Turandot’s veil, kiss her, and reveal his name, which is amor.

The last piece he performed in public, at the 2006 winter Olympics in Torino, “Nessun Dorma” is a long way from a six-year-old singing, but I know Pavarotti would have smiled to hear the little girl next door.

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