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The Tenor

When Luciano Pavarotti died of pancreatic cancer on September 6, the Italian press went into a frenzy: The first eleven pages in La Repubblica were devoted to news reports, to reminiscences by colleagues such as Riccardo Muti, friends, and newspaper critics, to gossip concerning his wives and families, to the $12,000,000 he had paid the Italian government for back taxes in 2000, and to speculation about his will. Pictures from the files were trotted out: Pavarotti with Lady Diana, with the Dalai Lama, with his young bride Nicoletta and their daughter Alice, with Placido Domingo and José Carreras (the "Three Tenors"), with his rock-star friends (Bono of U2). Statements were solicited from the Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, of course, but also the presidents of France and Russia, not to mention George and Laura Bush. Few heads of state have received such prolific tributes. 50,000 brave souls found their way to the cathedral of Modena to pay their last respects or to attend the funeral. Yet there were also contrasting voices among the critics, some who wrote with grudging respect (Michelangelo Zurletti in La Repubblica), others who took the opportunity to lambaste the tenor as a symbol of all that was wrong with Italian culture (Paolo Isotta in Corriere della Sera).

They were all right, each in a different way. How do you judge a life, especially a life played out so completely in the public eye? You begin, of course, by identifying what was so extraordinary about the figure, and in this case everyone is agreed: that voice, that sound, that ability to match syllables and notes. Unmistakable. Unbelievable. When Pavarotti first appeared on operatic stages during the 1960s, he seemed a revelation. There were other great tenors, to be sure, but this voice that joined the most sensitive lyricism with extraordinary power, this artistry in which word and tone were a single unit, this singer had a presence that seemed unique. Here was a tenor who could finally show us what Donizetti and Bellini had in mind. And in some cases he did just that: his high Cs like points of light as Tonio in La fille du régiment, the sad bumpkin he created as Nemorino in L'elisir d'amore (with his beautiful "Una furtiva lagrime"), Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor (has anyone ever sung the final aria more beautifully?), Arturo in I puritani (even, in some cases, with the notorious high F), but also selected roles from Verdi (Rodolfo in Luisa Miller singing the almost motionless "Quando le sere al placido," the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto tossing off "La donna é mobile" like a feather in the air, a regal Riccardo--even if reduced to the governor-general of Boston--in Un ballo in maschera) or even Puccini (Rodolfo in La Bohéme or Calaf in Turandot). If the Olympics sent his "Nessun dorma" all over the world, it was in the opera house that Pavarotti made it his own.

And yet ... and yet ... This most beautiful tenor voice in living memory seemed gradually to lose its bearings. It was not just the circus show of the "Three Tenors"; it was not just the "Pavarotti %amp% Friends" extravaganzas with pop stars and television personalities; it was not just the fluttering white handkerchief. Before his death, he said repeatedly that he wanted to be remembered as an opera singer, but that was the profession he seemed to have betrayed. After he passed, William Mason, the General Director of Lyric Opera of Chicago, issued a fine tribute to the singer, but was too polite to mention that his predecessor, Ardis Krainik, had banned Pavarotti from her house more than fifteen years ago because of his tendency to cancel performances at the last minute. Did Pavarotti really not know how to read music fluently, as many have said? It seems absurd: we're not talking about rocket science here. Yet, for a major singer (and without invoking the legendary Domingo, who has performed more varied roles than anyone should be permitted) his repertory was extraordinarily limited and his choice of new roles was not always intelligent. Sir Georg Solti pushed him to sing Verdi's Otello with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with very mixed results: not only did his voice not seem suited to the part, he did not seem to understand it musically. In order to cast him as Radames in Aida, compromises were made everywhere. I remember one performance where the tenor was in such poor physical condition that he could no longer walk down a set of stairs into the judgment chamber, and so was escorted instead into the wings, while the chorus addressed him from beneath the stage. Even when he sang Neapolitan songs, his pronunciation left much to be desired and his exuberant personality failed to grasp the layer of melancholy that underlies much of this repertory. His commitment to opera as drama was limited at best. He always seemed to be playing Luciano Pavarotti.

He had fame, he had fortune, he had worshipers everywhere, he had all the women and spaghetti he wanted. At the Metropolitan Opera, Joe Volpe was prepared to make endless excuses for him, excuses he would make for no other singer. But was he prepared to push himself for the sake of his art? Hardly. He had a fabled summer home in Pesaro, the home of the Rossini Opera Festival, but only once did he agree to sing for the Festival, in a concert that mostly featured the white handkerchief. Was he prepared to try his hand at some Rossini role on the Adriatic stage? No.

He was blessed with perhaps the most beautiful voice we will ever hear, but he never became the artist that voice merited. Will he prove to have been the harbinger of a future in which art and popular culture are hardly distinguishable, in which it seems absurd to aim for the best when much less can gain you fame and fortune? Will he incarnate the myth our culture deserves?

By Philip Gossett