Luciano Pavarotti

Operatic tenor whose prodigious talent was matched by his enormous commercial popularity


Luciano Pavarotti, singer: born Modena, Italy 12 October 1935; married 1961 Adua Veroni (three daughters; marriage dissolved), 2003 Nicoletta Mantovani (one daughter, and one son deceased); died Modena 6 September 2007.

Luciano Pavarotti, "the greatest tenor in the world" according to the public-relations hype that enveloped him during the later years of his career, was a giant, both literally and figuratively, who sang in football stadiums, sports arenas and open-air theatres, giving pleasure to tens of thousands of people; one who turned a Puccini aria into a pop number and whose trademark was the large white handkerchief, clutched in his left hand, with which he frequently mopped his brow. However, it should never be forgotten that behind the razzmatazz thrown up by the media, there stood the figure of another singer, younger, thinner, more agile.

This Pavarotti had a most beautiful lyric tenor voice, perfectly produced, with strong, effortless top notes that rang out, clarion-like; his phrasing was stylish, his diction impeccable, and he could infuse a simple love-song or a complicated aria with exquisite tenderness. Though never a wonderful actor, he was a first-rate comedian, whose sense of humour and faultless timing were admirable, not only in comic operas such as Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore or La Fille du régiment, but also in tragic roles with a humorous or ironic side to them, such as Rodolfo in La Bohème, the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, and Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera.

As his voice matured, it gained in warmth and colour, as well as strength, without losing the flexibility that enabled him to sing the bel canto roles of Bellini and Donizetti, in particular Elvino in La sonnambula, Arturo in I puritani, Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor and Fernando in La favorita. Luckily, this younger Pavarotti made a large number of recordings, so there is plenty of concrete evidence as well as the memories of older opera-goers to prove that he did in fact exist. Even during the years of mega-concerts and other such events, the earlier Pavarotti could still be glimpsed inside the later version: after all, they sang with the same vocal cords.

Luciano Pavarotti was born in Modena, in northern Italy, where his father, Fernando, a baker by trade, sang as a tenor in the chorus of the Teatro Communale. In his teens, Luciano played a lot of sport, football and volley-ball in particular. By the age of 18 he was six feet tall and weighed just over 12 stone. He studied to be a teacher and taught in a primary school for two years before he seriously considered becoming a professional singer. After studying with the former tenor Arrigo Pola in Modena, he went to Mantua to work with Ettore Campogalliani, the teacher of many famous Italian singers, including Renata Tebaldi, Carlo Bergonzi, Renata Scotto and Mirella Freni. In 1961 Pavarotti won the Achille Peri competition in Reggio Emilia and made his début there on 29 April as Rodolfo.

Another early role was the Duke in Rigoletto, which Pavarotti sang at Rovigo, Palermo and, in June 1963, with the Dublin Grand Opera Society. This last engagement led directly to his Covent Garden début in September the same year, as a replacement for Giuseppe di Stefano, who was indisposed, in La Bohème. Rodolfo became Pavarotti's calling card, the role in which he liked to make his début in the opera houses of the world: after Covent Garden, he sang the part at the Vienna State Opera (1963); at the San Carlo, Naples (1964); at La Scala, Milan (1965); at the San Francisco Opera (1967); at the Metropolitan, New York (1968); at the Lyric Opera, Chicago (1973); and at the Paris Opéra (1974). Long after he grew too large to be dramatically credible as a poet starving in a garret, Pavarotti continued to charm audiences as Rodolfo, pouring out Puccini's gorgeous melodies like a stream of liquid gold and playing the fool with irresistible good humour.

After his unexpected London début, Pavarotti returned to Britain in 1964 to sing Idamante in Mozart's Idomeneo at Glyndebourne. He was not really at ease in this role, which did not lie comfortably for him, and though the beauty of his voice attracted notice, his performance as a whole was not much admired. In February 1965 he made his US début in Miami as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, with Joan Sutherland as Lucia; this was the beginning of a partnership fruitful for both singers. In May Pavarotti sang Elvino in La sonnambula at Covent Garden, with Sutherland as Amina: then in July he accompanied the Sutherland / Williamson International Opera company on a tour of Australia, during which he sang Nemorino in L'elisir d'amore and Alfredo in La traviata, as well as Elvino and Edgardo, all with Sutherland.

Back in London the following year, Sutherland and Pavarotti appeared together again at Covent Garden in Donizetti's La Fille du régiment. Despite accusations of vulgarity from some critics, the production was a tremendous popular success. Sitting in the front row of the amphitheatre, surrounded by cheering fans, I found it quite impossible not to applaud as wildly as my neighbours at the incredible ease with which the tenor reached the seven top Cs in Tonie's first-act aria, and equally impossible not to share their enjoyment of the robust sense of humour displayed by both singers throughout the performance. It was a marvellous evening.

At La Scala in 1966, Pavarotti sang Tebaldo (Tybalt) in a controversial but successful production of I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Bellini's version of Romeo and Juliet. This was later presented at the Holland Festival, the Rome Opera, the Edinburgh Festival and in Montreal for Expo 67. Another fine role for the tenor at La Scala was Des Grieux in Massenet's Manon, sung in Italian with Mirella Freni in the title role. Having obtained a seat at the side of the top balcony where one had to "strap hang", leaning far out over the auditorium in order to see the stage, I noticed, with that tiny part of my mind not occupied with the glorious singing of the duet for Manon and Des Grieux at the end of the first act, that a large piece of the chandelier had become detached. It fell harmlessly into the central aisle of the stalls and no one moved a muscle until the end of the act, when there was pandemonium, half tumultuous applause, half hysterical exclamations of horror.

Another of Pavarotti's most ingratiating characterisations, then and later, was undoubtedly Nemorino, the illiterate but far from stupid rustic hero of L'elisir d'amore. Many great tenors from Mario to Gigli have excelled in this role, but Pavarotti brought to it his own special brand of sly humour, and invariably stopped the show with his rendering of "Una furtiva lagrima", which he frequently encored. Unfortunately he did not sing Nemorino in London until 1990, by which time he could no longer play the very young man convincingly, his voice having grown darker in colour and less sweet in tone after the heavier roles he had taken on. But at the Metropolitan, where I heard him sing the role in the early 1970s, he was still, in every respect, a perfect Nemorino, whose physical clumsiness was most endearing as well as dramatically apt, and whose voice caressed the music with a velvet touch.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s Pavarotti continued to sing roles such as Arturo in I puritani and Fernando in Donizetti's La favorita, as well as the heavier repertory he was by then beginning to attack: he sang Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera and the title roles of Idomeneo and Verdi's Ernani at the Met; Rodolfo in Verdi's Luisa Miller and Cavaradossi in Tosca at La Scala; Manrico in Il trovatore, Calaf in Turandot, Enzo in Ponchielli's La Gioconda and Radames in Aida at San Francisco.

Not all these new roles were equally successful; Riccardo (or Gustavus in productions of Verdi's opera set in Sweden) rapidly became one of his best portrayals, which he sang in Chicago, Geneva, Vienna, Paris, at Covent Garden and elsewhere: both the character and the music were exactly tailored to his requirements. Idomeneo was less well suited to him, although he repeated the role at Salzburg in 1983, opened the Scala season of 1985-86 with Mozart's opera and, despite the cancellation of some performances at the Met in 1991, won the Gramophone Award of Artist of the Year for his recording of the role.

Neither Ernani nor Rodolfo in Luisa Miller became popular with Pavarotti or his fans, but he sang Cavaradossi at the Met, with Montserrat Caballé as Tosca, at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, at the Salzburg Easter Festival, in Rome and at Covent Garden, where Tosca was relayed on the big screen set up in the piazza before an estimated audience of 7,000 people. Manrico was a problematic role which Pavarotti announced he would not sing again, but in 1987, after cancelling some performances in Chicago, he appeared in Il trovatore at the Met two months later. This production was shown on British television and the more lyrical music was quite gorgeously sung, though "Di quella pira" had to be transposed down. He also sang Manrico in Florence in 1990. Calaf, despite his affection for "Nessun dorma", which he included in every one of one of his concerts, usually as the final encore, was also in its entirety a very heavy role for Pavarotti, as was Enzo, which he gave up after repeating La Gioconda in the Verona Arena in 1980.

Pavarotti continued to sing Radames throughout the 1980s, with mixed success; in Berlin, Chicago and Vienna his performances were greatly admired, but at Covent Garden, where a new production of Aida was mounted for him in 1984, the result was a fiasco. Pavarotti, suffering from a virus infection, was in poor voice, while the director and designer were heartily booed. Yet only two years later at the Met, the tenor offered a splendidly sung Radames that was cheered to the echo. Nineteen eighty-six was a particularly good year: in April Pavarotti sang the Verdi Requiem in the Spectrum, a huge indoor sports arena in Philadelphia; the chorus numbered 3,500 and the audience 15,000. The tenor, in glorious voice, also took part in performances of Un ballo in maschera and La Bohème together with the winners of the Opera Company of Philadelphia/ Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition, which had been inaugurated a few years earlier.

In May he celebrated the 25th anniversary of his début with a performance of La Bohème in Modena, in which his father Fernando appeared as Parpignol, the toy seller in the Café Momus act; this production, together with Pavarotti father and son, turned up in Buenos Aires the following year.

Events such as the Verdi Requiem in the Spectrum began to figure more and more frequently in Pavarotti's engagement book: concerts in Toronto during 1985, and in the Joe Louis Arena, Detroit and Ravinia Park, Chicago in June 1988 drew audiences of more than 17,000, while the Three Tenors (Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and José Carreras) concert at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome in July 1990, on the eve of the World Cup final (with "Nessun dorma" the tournament's official theme), attracted considerably more. In May 1990 the Scottish Exhibition Centre in Glasgow found place for a mere 12,000, but more than 100,000 people stood in torrential rain in Hyde Park in July 1991 to hear Pavarotti in the Park.

Meanwhile, Pavarotti was cancelling more and more opera performances, often because of the arthritis from which he suffered. In 1989 the cancellation of Cavaradossi in Chicago resulted in a break with Lyric Opera, which claimed that in the previous eight years he had cancelled 26 out of 41 planned performances.

However, there were also occasions when the old – or perhaps one should say the young – Pavarotti reappeared. One such occasion was on New Year's Eve 1990, when he took part in the Farewell Gala performance of Die Fledermaus for Dame Joan Sutherland at Covent Garden, singing "Parigi, o cara" from La traviata with the diva during the cabaret at Prince Orlovsky's ball. Another noteworthy occasion was the concert performance, spread over two evenings in April 1991, of Verdi's Otello, given by the Chicago Symphony conducted by Sir Georg Solti, which marked Pavarotti's first attempt at the title role. He sang another new role, Canio in Pagliacci, in concert at Philadelphia in February 1992. Later that year he returned to La Scala after an absence of several years, to sing the title role in Verdi's Don Carlo. Two small mishaps were booed by the merciless Scala audience, though much of his singing was excellent.

In 1995 he returned to Covent Garden for four performances of Un ballo in maschera. Though not very well on the first night, he nevertheless sang. According to Deborah Voigt, the American soprano singing Amelia, the sound he made was spectacular. On 1 February 1996, the centenary of La Bohème was celebrated by a performance of Puccini's opera in Turin with Pavarotti as Rodolfo and Mirella Freni as Mimi. In April that year he acquired a new role, Andrea Chénier, the poet hero of Giordano's opera, while in July the Three Tenors gave a concert at Wembley Stadium to an estimated audience of 50,000. The following spring Pavarotti gave a recital at Covent Garden. He was in good voice and "Una furtiva lagrima" was sung so sweetly that "a furtive tear" was visible in many eyes.

During the summer of 1998 Pavarotti underwent operations for hip and knee replacements. His private life was also in great turmoil. Having been married to Adua Veroni, a successful singers' agent, for many years, he now fell in love with Nicoletta Mantovani, a girl less than half his age, and after an acrimonious divorce from Adua, he married Nicoletta.

Pavarotti returned to the Metropolitan in 1999 to sing Cavaradossi, and on 14 January 2000 he repeated the role in a special performance of Tosca in Rome to celebrate the lady's 100th birthday. Semi-staged by Franco Zeffirelli, the performance was conducted by none other than Placido Domingo. Cavaradossi was also the role in which the tenor said goodbye to the Royal Opera in January 2002 and to the Metropolitan on 13 March 2004 – his last stage performance.

His farewell concert tour of the world was interrupted in the summer of 2006 when he was operated on for cancer of the pancreas.

Elizabeth Forbes

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