Sunday, August 11, 2019

Luciano Pavarotti: The Movie


I have written little on live theater over the last decade and even less about film but sometimes I cannot resist!  Recently, we went to see the movie “Pavarotti”.  I was dubious about seeing it since I believed it was all about his voice and doubted that a movie theatre would have the best sound equipment. Then we, serendipitously, sat next to a couple at the Lensic Theater and, unrequested, they started raving about the film and they had no problem with the sound.  When this “review” was confirmed by a friend we decided to go. 

Miracle of all miracles my wife and I agreed, what a wonderful film it was. Bottom line it is a documentary directed by Ron Howard (and he may have had a heavy hand in the editing) which was superb.  

Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007) was born in Modena, Italy where he always returned in later years for family and to perform. Ron Howard used the background of Modena together with stills from the family album to tell the story of the childhood of the future superstar.


His father was a carpenter but sang in the church choir and was said to be an accomplished tenor. When he was old enough, Luciano joined him in the choir.  His mother was a teacher and his family convinced him to follow in her footsteps.  So, he did teach for a while. He could not resist his calling, however, and his opera debut came in 1961 at the Teatro Reggio Emilia.  In 1963 he made his International debut at the Royal Opera House in London as Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La Boheme” and quickly added all the major opera houses of Europe including the famed La Scala in Milan.

I remember in the early 1970’s when he sang with Joan Sutherland at the Metropolitan Opera.  In those days the singers did not have to be actors as well which we all expect today.  It was enough for them to stand at the front of the stage and belt out an aria.  But Pavarotti and Sutherland never belted anything out, they had the most lyrical voices one can imagine.  

In addition to his on stage charisma Pavarotti had this captivating personal style. The film speaks of his friendship with Princess Diana.  Here is a clip:

I had a friend and client, Nelson Shanks, who was a portrait painter and did a number of portraits of Pavarotti. He also did one of Lady Di when he was working for a summer in the studio of John Singer Sargent in London. I wonder whether Pavarotti introduced them. Here is an image of Nelson and Pavarotti with the portrait.


Everyone compares Enrico Caruso, the legendary tenor from the early 20th century with Pavarotti with neither coming out on top.  In fact, when I looked up the former on line I saw arias listed for both of them on the same page.  It took half a century to find a comparable, voice demonstrating how rare a tenor like this is.

The documentary includes a clip of Pavarotti at the Met singing “Ah mes Amis ... Pour mon âme” from Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment” which requires eight high C’s one of the most difficult feats for a tenor.  When Pavarotti is asked, if he is sure he can do it when he goes on stage, he says matter of factly, “No”.  Here is a recording of his 1972 Met performance that was a career breakthrough. 


Pavarotti reached the summit of his popularity with the series of Three Tenors concerts with José Carreras and Placido Domingo.  Their first performance at the World Cup Finals in 1990 was at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. (This was where, as a child, I saw my first full opera. It was Aida and I will never forget the production  with live animals on the stage. But I digress. ) 

In the film Carrera recounts that in 1987 he was diagnosed with leukemia.  After going through a bone marrow transplant and chemotherapy he made a full recovery.  He says that during that time he was thinking about a concert he could do in order to make a comeback and the Three Tenors was the perfect vehicle.  The original performance was such a success that it was repeated in many other venues.  We managed to watch on our television, which was exciting enough but in person it would have been even more exciting, except in an outdoor setting sitting among such a crowd the sound might not have been as good!

After footage of the artist’s final years and funeral Ron Howard closes his movie with the aria “Nessun dorma” from Turandot sung by Pavarotti in his prime.


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