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Commentary

Luciano Pavarotti (Photo by Don Perdue, © Thirteen/WNET)
08 Sep 2008

“Great Performances” remembers Pavarotti — What remains is the voice.

Luciano Pavoritti died on September 6, 2007. The all-too-ample figure and the fables associated with him are already retreating from memory.

Great Performances — Pavarotti: A Life in Seven Arias

Above: Luciano Pavarotti (Photo by Don Perdue, © Thirteen/WNET)

 

But the voice remains, and it’s documented — and celebrated — in “Pavarotti; A Life in Seven Arias,” a “Great Performances” presentation slated for broadcast by PBS on Wednesday (10 September).

“In a career that spanned four decades he defined what a tenor is,” says David Thompson, mastermind of the project that originated at the BBC. “And that’s why I decided to focus on the voice, for it’s the voice that is his legacy.” Thompson points out, moreover, it is extremely fortunate that these four decades, beginning with his first Bohème in Modena, his Italian hometown, are so richly documented in high-quality recordings and on film.

Thompson looks back on a long career in TV documentaries that embraces a wide variety of people and subjects. Music has been a central concern, and his bibliography includes programs on Aaron Copland, Gian Carlo Menotti and Francis Poulenc. “When the BBC approached me, they wanted this program to mark the first anniversary of Pavarotti’s death,’ he says. “And that meant that we didn’t have much time.”

To structure the 90-minute program the director decided to offer a retrospective of Pavarotti’s career by focusing on seven arias closely associated with his fame. “I thought this was the best way to make sense of his career,” Thompson says, recalling his 1979 tribute to Pavarotti “King of the High C’s,” also made for the BBC. “They trace his development and put it all together — and the performances present Pavarotti when his voice was at its best.”

The program opens with “Che gelida manina” from Bohème. The 1965 Modena performance features an equally youthful Mirella Freni as Mimi. Twelve years later Pavarotti sang Rodolfo opposite Renata Scotto in the first-ever live TV broadcast from New York’s Met.

“Pour mon âme” from Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment marked a double turning point in the tenor’s career, for this challenging aria with nine high C’s and the Covent Garden performance brought him together for the first time with Joan Sutherland and conductor-husband Richard Bonynge. Pavarotti identifies the Australian soprano as a major influence upon his development. “She taught me how to breathe and how to control my voice,” he says.

A sequence heavy in sentiment takes Pavarotti back to Modena to sing César Franck’s haunting Panis Angelicus with his baker father.

It was manager Herbert Breslin who launched the media blitz that moved Pavarotti beyond the opera house and designed the “Three Tenors” concerts that made Pavarotti’s name a household concept around the world. Clips from the first “Three Tenors” performance at the Rome 1990 World Cup document this collaboration with Placido Domingo and José Carreras.

“Questa o quella,” the Duke’s aria from Verdi’s Rigoletto recalls a further favorite role. It was, however, “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot that became Pavarotti’s signature aria — especially after the recording of it made at the World Cup.

From the tenor’s late years, when Tosca became his undoing, Thompson chose “E Lucian le stelle.” It was in this opera that Pavarotti made his final appearance at the Met in 2004. It was his last complete opera performance. The series ends — appropriately — with the “Ingemisco” from Verdi’s Requiem.

Thompson counterpoints the music with recollections by fellow tenor Kim Begley, Bonynge and Sutherland, director John Coply, critic Noman Lebrecht and Covent Garden wig and makeup artist Ron Freeman.

Surviving fellow tenors José Carreras and Plácido Domingo also pay tribute to Pavarotti’s greatness. Especially touching are comments by Juan Diego Flórez, a major Pavarotti fan. “Pavarotti had happiness in the voice,” the Peru-born tenor says. “His technique was based on clarity, on the words, on the vowels. “It is important — especially in a tenor — that the words come across and that you can understand them.”

Tracking down these singers was not easy for Thompson. “It was hard to find them and to find a time when they were available,” he says. “Monserrat Caballé was available in Munich for only one day, and Carreras could be interviewed only in China. For Domingo we had to arrange an interview in New York.”

Like millions for whom Pavarotti was a synonym for opera — if not for serious music per se — Thompson never heard Pavarotti live. “I was always busy with other things when he sang in London,” he says. “But I knew the voice well. It was a powerful voice, very even and lyrical. That’s what this program is about — his voice, not his personal life.”

“Pavarotti: A Life in Seven Arias,” a “Great Performances” presentation, airs on public television on September 10. Check local stations for local broadcast times.

Wes Blomster

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