By Lawrence Budmen

Tenor Luciano Pavarotti, one of the true legends of the opera world, died at his home in Modena, Italy on September 6. Born in that provincial Italian town in 1936, Pavarotti originally intended a career in professional sports (as a soccer player). His remarkable vocal talent eventually blazed the way for a career that would make him a bona fide global legend.

He made his debut as Rodolfo in La Boheme in Reggio Emelia in 1961. (His Mimi was the Romanian soprano Virginia Zeani, now a distinguished vocal teacher and resident of Palm Beach. She would also portray his first Gilda in Rigoletto.) Miami was the site of his American debut in 1965 as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, opposite the legendary Lucia of Joan Sutherland. That collaboration would eventually make operatic history.

Luciano Pavarotti embodied the great Italian school of operatic singing. That special, quintessential ring and glow that Italian tenors brought to their vocal sound was uniquely his. In the tradition of Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Giovanni Martinelli, and Giuseppe De Stefano, Pavarotti sang with fervor and passion. In an age of note perfect, conservatory trained singers who lacked personality, Pavarotti was a revelation. 

He idolized Gigli and the two singers had much in common. Like Gigli, Pavarotti’s high notes had a visceral, laser like quality that was thrilling. Also the two singers brought a larger than life persona to every role they inhabited. Whether the opera was Lucia di Lammermoor, La Boheme, or Turandot, Pavarotti’s singing and intensity of utterance could never be mistaken for any other singer. 

At the height of his career in the 1970’s and early 80’s, Pavarotti’s essentially lyric tenor voice possessed a sexy, alluring quality and absolute ease throughout the entire range. In his great years, the voice effortlessly climbed to high C and above without strain or scooping. 

Pavarotti’s natural repertoire was the lyric tenor roles of Donizetti (Lucia di Lammermoor, L’Elisir d’Amore), Verdi (La Traviata, Rigoletto), and Puccini (La Boheme, Madama Butterfly). A series of collaborations with Joan Sutherland have become legendary. In the 1980’s ill advised forays into such heavy repertoire as Aida, Turandot, La Gioconda, Il Trovatore, and an ill fated concert version of Otello took a toll on his voice. (While Nessun Dorma became Pavarotti’s anthem, the entire role of Calaf is dramatic tenor terrain.) High notes began to show strain. The effort of singing this often heroic tenor repertoire (as well as persistent health problems) soon led to cancellations. 

In many ways the phenomenon of The Three Tenors was a godsend to Pavarotti. At a time when he was having serious vocal problems, the threesome’s corporate traveling show brought him back into the spotlight. Whatever the artistic merits of the Domingo-Pavarotti-Carerras trio, it gave Pavarotti’s career extra mileage.

I heard Pavarotti perform live over three decades. The very first time was a Traviata in 1970 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (with Sutherland and Sherrill Milnes – golden age casting). In those days he had an attractive timbre and easy delivery but the voice was not particularly distinctive. His coaching sessions with Sutherland and her conductor-husband Richard Bonynge would yield tremendous results.

Less than two years after that initial hearing, spring 1972 brought one of the most memorable nights of opera in this listener’s lifetime. The Met’s retiring general manager Rudolf Bing had staged Donizetti’s opera comique Daughter of the Regiment as a vehicle for Sutherland. Pavarotti stole that show hands down. In Tonio’s bravura aria he hit nine high C’s in quick succession – instantly assuring his entry into the operatic history books. What an extraordinary voice he unfurled! In those days it had flexibility and silken smoothness - a one of a kind instrument.

Pavarotti graced the stage of Florida Grand Opera in the 1970’s. Those were the days of superstar casting at FGO. His rendition of Una Furtiva Lagrima in L’Elisir d’Amore was melting, exquisite, like fine crystal. Pavarotti’s Rodolfo in La Boheme (with the wonderful Mirella Freni as Mimi) was vociferous, robust. Back then his vocalism was always a model of style, musicianship, and taste. His last FGO efforts were less successful. Puccini’s Tosca was a vocal stretch for Pavarotti. At a performance late in the Miami run, he alternately marked and saved his voice. When he let go there was evidence of scooping and the high notes were unreliable. In his signature role of Riccardo in Un Ballo en Maschera, he fared better. But his vocalism was overly cautious. He cancelled appearances in productions of Turandot and Verdi’s Ernani. Those shows went on with impressive substitutes – the late James McCracken as Calaf in Turandot and Nunzio Tedesco in the title role of Ernani. 

The Concert Association’s Judy Drucker presented him repeatedly in local concert appearances. In the 1980’s two such events were particularly memorable (at Dade County Auditorium and the Jackie Gleason Theater respectively). With the Florida Philharmonic providing lavish accompaniment under the late Emerson Buckley (one of the tenor’s favorite conductors) A gorgeous, evocatively lyrical rendition of an aria from Massenet’s Werther suggested that French repertoire would have been a natural for the tenor if only he would have gone in that direction. (He could have been a wonderful Faust.) Of course he capped both events with a vociferous Nessun Dorma. (His concert on the sands of Miami Beach became an international event with the video eventually being televised to millions around the globe.)

In 1996 the Metropolitan Opera mounted Giordano’s Andrea Chenier for him – another foray into heavy waters. At the performance I attended, Pavarotti’s pitch frequently wavered. The once glorious voice seemed diminished in size and volume. Occasionally there was a glimmer of the vocal gold that made him a superstar. (Soprano Maria Guleghina and baritone Juan Pons consistently out sang him.) Yet, on a given evening, Pavarotti could still rise to the challenge and deliver the vocal goods. In 1997 he sang Calaf in Turandot at the Met. By now he was nearly immobile on stage due to physical problems. His singing was a surprise. He sounded like the Pavarotti of old and really delivered thrilling vocalism. This was Italianate tenor singing par excellence. The house went wild and deservedly so! Nessun Dorma indeed!

About three years later Judy Drucker presented him in a solo recital at downtown Gusman Hall. On paper an evening of Italian and Neapolitan song promised much but it proved to be a sad event. The voice was now constricted, the high notes hit or miss. Much of the old fervor was there but the vocal equipment was but a ghost of his great years. Reports of the recent farewell tour seem to suggest that was par for the course.

Few singers were endowed with such a glorious instrument. In his best years Pavarotti often delivered performances that verged on the miraculous. Like De Stefano he made bad repertoire decisions that eventually took a toll on his resources. On recordings, his performances with Sutherland of Lucia, Rigoletto, Traviata, and Turandot are vivid reminders of what great singing is all about. In his prime Pavarotti was a giant. We shall not hear a voice like his again in the foreseeable future – if at all. His golden tones will be greatly missed.

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