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Pavarotti’s thrills, sublime and cheap
[NEW YORK] In opera, people spend a lot of time saying relatively little. It takes a four-minute aria for the young hero of Puccini's "La Bohème" just to introduce himself to the pretty neighbor who's knocked at his door.
Why do we wait?
Because this stretching of time, the refusal to just say it, opens up a space in which we're forced to live — sometimes to the point of excruciation — with emotions that would normally pass in seconds. In that "Bohème" aria, "Che gelida manina," it's as if our heads are being held underwater in a pool of boyish longing, the endearing boastfulness of a guy with a crush. It's sublime even as it — because it — skirts too-muchness, even tackiness.
Possibly no one in operatic history has been as sublime and as tacky as the subject of "Pavarotti," a new documentary by Ron Howard that opens Friday. The film, like an opera aria, forces us to linger on Luciano Pavarotti, a tenor who, 12 years after his death, remains beloved — and yet may be taken a little for granted.
Opera fans hold on to his 1960s and '70s glory days, when his sunny voice was in its prime, and he challenged himself in corners of the bel canto repertory. The broader public is likelier to remember the cheesy charity concerts and duets with Bono, the guilty "Three Tenors" pleasure with a white handkerchief clutched in his hand and endless high C's.
The importance of the new documentary, the opportunity it provides, is to make us reckon with these two Pavarottis as one, and in doing so to recognize a side of opera that many of us who love it as high art like to ignore. The vulgar side, the trashy, the elemental, the baldly populist — the side never better embodied than by this hulking, sweaty man with stringy hair, a patchy beard and an unforgettable sound.
Born in 1935, Pavarotti arrived on the scene just in time to ride the high-culture-mass-market wave that crested in the half-century after World War II. A smiling charmer, he was also, the film makes clear, more or less a child his whole life: sweet and generous, arrogant and capricious.
Part of the first generation to grow up surrounded by recordings — tenors like Caruso, Gigli and Martinelli he could emulate — he never learned to read music. His great luck was to fall in with Joan Sutherland, the Australian soprano who took him under her wing with her husband and conductor, Richard Bonynge. It was opposite Sutherland that his career ignited, at the Metropolitan Opera in 1972, with a ringing series of nine high C's in the big tenor aria of Donizetti's "La Fille du Régiment."
Opera, like gymnastics and ballet, intertwines measurable bodily achievement — sticking the landing, hitting the high note — and harder-to-define "artistry." Sometimes music critics feel guilty about the "athletic" stuff, as if we're simply Olympics judges holding up numbers after a vault.
But the artistry emerges from the athletics, however uneasily, and the athletics from the artistry. From "Fille" to his performance at the World Cup, Pavarotti's career — the high and the low, and the highs and the lows — demonstrated that they're ultimately inseparable.
Even at his greatest, in passages I hear in my head all the time, he carried within him the stadium shows of his later years. Other tenors sang "Che gelida manina," that aria from "La Bohème," with more conversational intimacy, like Jussi Björling on the treasured 1956 recording conducted by Thomas Beecham, letting his Mimì in on his love like he's sharing a secret.
Björling sang it like it was a tender black-and-white romance, a scene from "Casablanca." Pavarotti's rendition, on a 1972 set led by Herbert von Karajan, is in widescreen Technicolor.
He begins the aria with a slight veil over the voice, almost conjuring a dream, so that he can overpower us in the next phrase with the contrast of a clearer tone, as if we've waked up in a reality infinitely happier than sleep.
His extremes are more intense than Björling's refined intimacy — cheaper, even. But the life force — the potent, perspiring sincerity that would be even clearer once he got on TV — is thrilling. When he sings that he'll tell Mimì in a couple of words who he is, Pavarotti's high note is so arrestingly golden that it finally makes sense that, when he asks if he should keep talking, she's speechless. You'd be, too.
Just before the spectacular climax of the aria, he digs into a single word — "stanza" — with such conviction that you don't quite know what to do; you will remember the tangy way he pronounces the first vowel to the end of your days.
It's brash, that "stanza"; it's almost obscene. And yet it's right. Opera is certainly delicate, intelligent, tasteful — but at the same time it's the opposite of those things. Pavarotti is our most compelling modern reminder of that.
His "Three Tenors" colleague, Plácido Domingo, appears as a warmhearted talking head in the film. While Pavarotti's career seemed, to many, to descend irrevocably toward the stadium as if to damnation, for Domingo the 1990s ended up being a blip. They didn't distract too much at the time from his "real" operatic work, and once that heady era was over, he smoothly returned to the opera house.
In other words, he did everything correctly.
Still, if I were fleeing to the proverbial desert island, I'd sacrifice the whole of Domingo's output to preserve that single "stanza" of Pavarotti's.
Anyone who has been an intelligent, responsible, diligently overachieving older sibling will sympathize with what I see as Domingo's predicament here. He's achieved a longevity probably unmatched in operatic history; he reads music well enough to teach himself more than 150 roles; he ambitiously added conducting and opera-house administration to his resume. He is the very model of an opera star, everything a critic could ask for.
Yet by conjuring the full range of why we love the art form — the sometimes guilty mixture of high and low, elevated and crass, purity and sweat — it is Pavarotti who brings us to the secret, beating heart of opera.