His “Nessun dorma” was the twentieth century’s definitive one—the one that launched a thousand imitators.
So it caused a bit of a flurry this week when The Guardian reported on a new book about Luciano Pavarotti that says the tenor was lip-synching a performance of that aria at the 2006 Turin Olympics. Not feeling well enough to perform live, Pavarotti reportedly recorded the aria days before the performance, and the orchestra pre-recorded its parts, too. So the performance that turned out to be the tenor’s last was canned.
“The orchestra pretended to play for the audience, I pretended to conduct and Luciano pretended to sing. The effect was wonderful,” writes conductor Leone Magiera in the book, Pavarotti Visto da Vicino.
Oh, my. The whole idea of lip-synching goes against everything opera fans believe in, but as a longtime admirer of Pavarotti’s lyric tenor, I was drawn irresistibly to the footage a number of times. You can see this final public performance by the tenor below.
Trying to find places where the synching was obvious, I did not stumble over any horrible clunker spots, but the fact that Pavarotti could lip-synch this well seems somehow immensely sad, making him a caricature of his former self. Earlier in his career, he had chosen to program more recitals and stadium concerts because he could easily toss off one aria after another—much easier than staged operas. As his health declined, even those stadium concerts became difficult. Was it because he had sung “Nessun dorma” so many times, at so many recitals and stadium concerts, that lip-synching could be accomplished so well? Does the issue of lip-synching even matter when it comes to venues like stadium concerts and Olympic games, where the special sonic environment that you get with an unamplified voice in a large space like an opera house has been altered so greatly already?
What I want to hear is something that is far, far away in place and time from where Pavarotti had arrived in 2006. I greatly prefer to remember him as, say, Rodolfo in La Bohème at the Met in 1977, with Renata Scotto. I think I’ll go pop that DVD in the player now.