My father didn’t like opera. When his favorite classical-music radio station aired an opera recording, he would almost invariably turn the dial to his second-favorite classical station. (That’s back when there were multiple dedicated classical-music stations in the New York metro area.)
But he adored Pavarotti. He even went so far as to buy an LP compilation of arias featuring lots of the tenor’s fabled high Cs. I can remember watching a Met telecast of Rigoletto with him one time; during most of the opera, including all of Gilda’s arias, he busied himself with office work, but every time Luciano sang, he would stop what he was doing and gaze open-mouthed at our black-and-white TV.
It’s been a year since Pavarotti died. His voice was, of course, one of stunning natural beauty, a fact referred to by almost everyone quoted on Pavarotti: A Life in Seven Arias, from soprano Mirella Freni and conductor Richard Bonynge to tenor Juan Diego Flórez and stage director John Copley. This was not the only thing, but it is surely the main thing. There are also his eyes, conveying almost unbearable pain during “Ridi, Pagliaccio,” and there is, early in his career, his pure joy in leaping and bounding through music, making it sound easy. Of course, all this was possible because of the hard work he put in back in the 1950s and 1960s.
By the time I was going to the opera myself, Pavarotti was already in decline as a singer of staged operas, though his stadium career was still in full swing. I heard him in just three operas at the Met: Tosca, I Lombardi, and L’Elisir d’Amore. (The latter is the opera I enjoyed him in most, with his totally believable country-bumpkin Nemorino and an aria, “Una furtiva lagrima,” ideally suited to his lyric tenor.) In the 1990s he was coming under fire for being lazy (because he wasn’t learning new roles, because he was too large and could not move about the stage and didn’t make much attempt to act, because he relied on the prompter, etc.). These complaints were not unfounded, and yet his voice emerged in those three operas very little changed from what it had been 20 and 30 years before.
So what I like about the Great Performances documentary is its clear-eyed balance, covering early, mid, and late life without “spin.” There are the early triumphs, the childhood in Modena, the partnership with Sutherland, his two marriages, superstardom on the opera stage and in arenas, his vocal competition and benefit concerts, and final illness. Most of the facts in the documentary are not new, but there is one piece of footage—a discussion of a recording he made with Karajan, in which Pavarotti talks about how he is “crazy about pitch”—that I don’t remember hearing before. Here, Pavarotti complains about the harp being flat in one spot. In fact, though my father didn’t articulate it, I think what he may have disliked about opera—singers’ “wobbliness” in comparison with the sounds produced by a piano or by a symphony orchestra—was a perceived pitch problem. Pavarotti’s singing was warm, but unusually precise.
What can I say? A year after his death, I still miss Pavarotti. Thank heavens for recordings.