Luciano Pavarotti was bigger than life — the oversized belly, huge handkerchief, grandiose lifestyle and ever-present grin that shone like a beacon. He backed it up with a voice of intense focus and immense carrying power, which rang to the rafters on stages throughout the world.
He broke out of classical music’s insular world in an era when television became dominant, singing alongside Stevie Wonder and Sting as naturally as he did opposite Joan Sutherland and Mirella Freni. He was beloved by opera patrons in gowns and tailcoats, and by the masses who came in T-shirts and jeans to hear him sing in Central and Hyde parks.
“He had the most perfect technique in the history of recorded music,” soprano Renee Fleming said after Pavarotti died Thursday at age 71. “He also captured the hearts of the larger public in a way which rivaled only Enrico Caruso in the 20th century.”
A lyric tenor, Pavarotti owned some of opera’s classic roles: Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La Boheme.” Riccardo in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” and Nemorino in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore.” He first gained great fame as Tonio in Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment,” tossing off the famous nine high Cs of “Ah, mes amis” with startling ease.
His inclusion in a cast meant an instant sellout from San Francisco to Sydney, Mexico to Milan. Listening to recordings or watching DVDs, it’s easy to understand why. His voice is immediately recognizable, a warm Italian diction like no other, with beauty of tone, color and heft.
“His voice was unique,” said former Metropolitan Opera general manager Joe Volpe, who planned to attend Saturday’s funeral in Modena. “If you put a CD on today and it’s Luciano singing, you know it.”
When the orchestra swelled and Pavarotti sang “O soave fanciulla” in the first act of “Boheme,” hearts melted and tears welled in audience’s eyes. When he sang a triumphal “Vincero!” and held the final note to end “Nessun dorma” in Puccini’s “Turandot,” shivers went up and down spines.
In the annals of music, he joined Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Mario Del Monaco and Franco Corelli as Italian tenors of the highest rank.
And later in his career he could be shockingly unprepared: There was a Verdi Requiem at Carnegie Hall in 1996 when he appeared to be forgetting the words, stadium concerts where he was accused of lip-syncing. When he returned to the Met in 1995 for “La Fille,” the aria was transposed down and he struggled with his high Bs.
Pavarotti was banned from the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1989 after one cancellation too many. His acting was perfunctory even before hip and knee problems brought on by his enormous weight limited movement. His opera portrayals can’t be compared to Placido Domingo’s studied and nuanced performances.
Pavarotti didn’t act parts — the part became him and the rest of the performance rotated around him. Soprano Deborah Voigt was shocked when he disappeared in the middle of a “Ballo” performance to go off stage. Somehow, the rest of the cast adapted.
“If he needed a drink of water, so be it! Because his voice was what had drawn everyone to that theater,” she said. “It was a voice given by God. A sound uniquely his.”
All he had to do was smile, furrow those bushy eyebrows or bat an eyelash. Volpe was convinced Pavarotti won the audience over before he sang.
“His singing spoke right to the hearts of listeners whether they knew anything about opera or not,” Met music director James Levine said.
Yet, Pavarotti almost always suffered from stage fright, wondering when he walked on stage whether his voice would be with him that night. He said his reward came during curtain calls when he heard shouts of “Bravo!”
“They love me,” he said in his New York apartment overlooking Central Park three years ago, a day before his farewell to opera. “I love them. It’s a mutual affair.”