venerdì 7 settembre 2007

The Times

Goodbye Pavarotti
Forget the Pavarotti with hankies. He was better younger

Two pictures of Luciano Pavarotti are indelible. One is of the sweating, ageing star with the flag-sized handkerchief in a football stadium, still striving for those ringing notes and often finding them, despite everything. The other is of a lithe young man who could sing as if no effort was involved, sending an electric charge out from the stage with an innocent and instinctive power.

The slimmer figure is far in the past now, and the older Pavarotti is the one that you remember first. But, as with other stars of the opera who’ve embarked on one last tour too many, it’s important to remember the freshness that first brought him fame. When he first sang at Covent Garden in 1963 in La Bohème and Lucia di Lammermoor with Joan Sutherland, those who heard him were introduced to a voice that had an extraordinary quality – a thrilling tone and natural power accompanied by a clarity in his diction that seemed to set him apart. Even then, they say, he couldn’t act (though at least he could move nimbly around on the stage) but who cared? His voice was one of those instruments – like Giuseppe di Stefano’s or Carlo Bergonzi’s from the generation before his – that rang like a bell cast from the purest gold, and seemed to catch the essence of the Italian love affair with opera.

These things don’t happen often. Though as an artist, Plácido Domingo has a wider repertoire by far and has mastered the business of theatre-drama in a way that Pavarotti never could, that voice had a quality that fitted him for the stage. Sutherland said yesterday that to stand next to him and hear him take off was an experience that made even her tremble. His American stardom began alongside her in a famous production of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régimentat the Metropolitan Opera in New York, when he leapt over the Beecher’s Brook of the string of high Cs with an aplomb that left everyone gasping. From that moment he was a star.

It would lead him, years later and in the end, to the concerts which petered out last year in less than happy circumstances. His bulk was an impediment, his weariness obvious in the last years, and the voice hampered by hearing difficulties which made it an effort to keep in tune. That he still managed to produce thrilling moments was extraordinary; but they were reminders of what had gone before rather than a recreation of it.

Few singers of his fame seem to be able to lower the curtain on their careers with the right mixture of dignity and self-awareness. When he was due to give his last performance in Tosca at the Met, he cancelled a couple of hours before the performance with illness, though he’d insisted that he was fit only that afternoon. The general manager told the crowd that he’d said to the singer: “It’s a helluva way to end a great career.” And it was.

There had been a cracked high note at La Scala on the high-octane first night of the season in 1992 in Verdi’s Don Carlos, a signal that, on stage, the light was beginning to fade. It was embarrassing because the notorious crowd loved their part in his humiliation and because he had set great store by the performance in demonstrating that he hadn’t lost the touch. But he had.

In the latter years the roles were few, the movements painfully restricted. Only on the concert platform could he reproduce some of the moments that made audiences tremble.

The finest days were long past, but they do shimmer in the memory for those who experienced them. Listening yesterday to a live recording of La Bohème in Genoa in 1969 was to hear a voice of such freshness and innocence that it belied the work that had gone into it. He sings as if he is just breathing; the music pours out. In that performance he was on stage with Mirella Freni, the soprano who was his contemporary as a child at home in Modena. It’s said that as babies they shared the same wet nurse. And here they were, Puccini’s lovers revealing, almost explaining, how Italian opera works, and why it casts such a spell. The language flows like honey, their voices blend naturally, they respond instinctively to the grace and the spring of the score.

These are the days to remember. The natural appeal of the Italian way with opera is a straightforward appeal to the senses. From the bel canto roles in Donizetti and Bellini though Verdi to Puccini, Pavarotti was an exemplar of the breed of singer who wants to please. This is more than a concern for accuracy and delicacy in performance. It is a demand for attention, sometimes a plea for sympathy, always a demonstration of how music can colour familiar emotions in new and vivid shades. In Pavarotti’s grin, the wide-armed appeal for more applause, his eagerness to carry on until the last illness, you see the same innate enthusiasm that first made him stand out when he sang in the Modena choir that went to sing at the eisteddfod in Llangollen in 1955 and which took him on to the stage.

Because it is a style that is suspicious of restraint, and encourages bravura displays, there’s always the lurking danger of over-the-top histrionics that can tip easily into vulgarity. Yet the early Three Tenors Concerts with Domingo and José Carreras had a visceral good humour to them that were part of a tradition that stretched back to singers in ages past who tried to outshine each other with acrobatic vocal tricks. The difference was that this time they were heard by all the world.

For those who recoil from such public displays, it seemed a sell-out. Amplified voices, rampant commercialism, inflated prices – for some they were the antithesis of the art of opera. But the charge is not entirely fair. Many of the later concerts are best forgotten but, in the round, Pavarotti’s career was an adornment. His last tours shouldn’t be allowed to blot out the earlier, sharper picture of a singer who could thrill an audience with a near-miraculous pianissimo and then rouse it with, say, those nine high Cs in La Fille du Régiment which can bring a tenor down in a flash or make him just as quickly. The nerve and the drama were unmistakable, like the sap and juice of that voice, and these are the proper memories.

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