Operatic power to the people

The Baltimore Sun

Luciano Pavarotti was laid to rest yesterday, and, with his passing, an incredible chapter in operatic history came to a close.

Bono, frontman of the rock group U2 and one of the many pop stars who collaborated with the charismatic tenor in large-scale concerts, said it well last week: "Some can sing opera - Luciano Pavarotti was an opera."

Larger-than-life describes the man, physically and musically. A godsend to gossip columnists and TV chat show hosts, not just music journalists, he had everything needed for celebrity status - and quite a bit more.

You have to go back to Maria Callas in the 1950s and '60s and Enrico Caruso in the early decades of the 20th century to find someone who could generate as much media buzz (or blitz). And neither of those venerable artists ever hit the mass-market big time quite the way Pavarotti did.

He practically reinvented the business of taking opera singing to the people, creating a kind of franchise that, even when opened up to let in colleagues or guests from nonclassical fields, remained fundamentally a Pavarotti phenomenon.

The historic cash-cow collaboration of Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras was billed as The Three Tenors, but it owed its existence and success to the king of the high fees - Pavarotti, whose solo mega-concerts had laid the groundwork that could then generate the crowds, the cameras, the crush and the compensation.

For many people, Pavarotti, who died Thursday at 71 from complications of pancreatic cancer, was the face and sound of the operatic art form itself.

Even folks who wouldn't be caught dead in an actual opera house sitting through a full-fledged production would gladly shell out sizable amounts of money to hear an amplified Pavarotti sing in a sports arena or convention center. He exerted a magnetic pull that other gifted opera artists could only marvel at or envy.

An unfortunate side effect of that highly commercial side to the tenor's career was that it tended to overshadow his original claim to fame as a startlingly vibrant presence in the cast of a staged opera. Once he started down the giant concert path, Pavarotti devoted less and less time to his theater work. He seemed happier singing greatest hits and the occasional pop song before happy throngs.

In that respect, the Pavarotti legacy was not all it could have been. Consider the case of Domingo: Back in the day, the two went in for a lot of comparing, as well as carping, before mutual respect and affection blossomed fully. But Pavarotti proved to be the more limited artist. He never fulfilled all of his potential, while Domingo surpassed his.

Domingo, who started out as a baritone, developed into a formidable tenor, even without an effortless high register. He stretched into the heaviest Verdi roles (he became a commanding Otello) and even some Wagner (a compelling Siegmund and Parsifal). A broadly trained musician, he has constantly added to his repertoire (more than 125 roles, including the title one in the premiere of Tan Dun's The First Emperor last year, at age 65).

The less versatile Pavarotti was a born tenor with a top register that, in his prime, knew no constraints. But he stayed within a relatively small range of repertoire and seemed increasingly uninterested in adding anything of note, or exerting extra effort to rethink or refine his most frequent roles.

When, for example, the Metropolitan Opera planned a new production of Verdi's La forza del destino for him in 1997, he decided late in the game that he wasn't able to have his role prepared after all. That sort of thing came to taint the tenor's reputation in the business, but it didn't hurt his relationship with the public a bit.

Even the administrators or managers who grew exasperated with him for one thing or another probably felt the same tinge of regret at Pavarotti's death that the rest of the world experienced last week. The reports of thousands paying their respects as his body lay in the cathedral of Modena, his northern Italian hometown, spoke volumes about the impact this bearlike man had on our times.

Like much of classical music, opera was considered a dying art by the 1960s, when the emphatic beat of rock was well on its way to becoming the pulse of the planet. Instead, opera thrived over the decades, expanded its base, held onto its stature.

There were various reasons, including the rapid spread of supertitles, but Pavarotti deserves great credit for his part in helping to demystify opera, even make it almost hip - just as the late soprano Beverly Sills did. But where Sills exerted her magnetic influence mostly over this country, Pavarotti's reach covered the whole world. It was an astonishing achievement that isn't likely to ever be duplicated.

To one degree or another, the tenor still could deliver the vocal goods in his later years, but his greatest work came in the first few decades of his career. The freshness and gleam of his voice, from the mid-1960s through the '70s and well into the '80s - captured on many recordings and videos - still produces chills.

You never forget the experience of hearing any truly exceptional singer for the first time. My initial encounter with Pavarotti came on a whim in the mid-1970s, when I decided to buy his debut solo album of Donizetti and Verdi arias. I didn't know who the beardless Italian guy was smiling out from the cover. I was mostly absorbed with dead tenors back then, especially Jussi Bjorling, but it seemed like a good idea to hear someone among the living.

The warm, penetrating quality of that tone hit me and hooked me instantly. Hearing a still not-quite-famous Pavarotti shortly afterward in a concert at Wolf Trap confirmed everything I felt about the talent. So did every subsequent opportunity for several more years, in recitals and complete opera performances (how magically he commanded an opera house stage), until the other Pavarotti started to emerge, the less spontaneous, less musical one who stood motionless in cavernous stadiums and microphoned it home.

But I never lost my affection for the original Pavarotti. I still love hearing him sculpt arias by Donizetti and Bellini, Verdi and Puccini, with his ardent lyricism and those hot high notes.

The quality that characterizes Pavarotti's best singing is radiance, a distinctive light propelled by an intense love of singing, a love that could instantly communicate across linguistic, cultural and generational barriers.

That light shines on.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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