Pavarotti had a unique place in the musical, and wider, world
A colleague and I were playing that old parlour game the other day: who is the most famous person you’ve ever met? Given our jobs, we’re both privileged to regularly meet some of the most high-profile classical artists today – and yet even the greatest of those are still likely to be trumped by, say, a pop star, or an actor, or royalty. And yet if you’d ever met Pavarotti, then he, most likely, would have given you the winning card. The tenor was, quite simply, one of the world’s most famous people. That a classical artist achieved such fame in today’s world is extraordinary. It didn’t happen that often before either (Jenny Lind, Enrico Caruso and Maria Callas are potential exceptions), and for all the prominence of the likes of Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim, it hasn’t really happened since.
The new film by Ron Howard, arriving soon in a cinema near you, promises to explore some of the reasons behind the Pavarotti phenomenon. But above everything else there was simply extraordinary music-making. And so that’s what we’ve decided to focus on in this issue. I asked six of our leading opera critics to choose one role that they felt defined, for them, Pavarotti’s art. I’d expected a bit of horse-trading to be required, but interestingly everyone proposed different roles. It’s clear that they all felt, when recalling their encounters with Pavarotti’s art, that here was someone very special indeed. But it’s also a recurring thread that his recording achievements were not his alone – he may have sold out stadiums with his arias, but when it came to opera, he was a character in a drama, his brilliance also shining forth in charming exchanges or duets of memorable beauty. A celebration of Pavarotti is also, therefore, in part a celebration of an extraordinary era of exquisite singers.
It’s also a celebration of recording. As with at least one of those critics, my only encounter with Pavarotti’s revered music-making was on disc. It’s 12 years since he died, but we need to turn back years, even decades, to find the instinctive, lyrical voice upon which his reputation was built. His talent emerged, thankfully, at a point when recording technology was able to capture it in sound quality which, even now, feels uncompromised. But without recording – and without the commitment of labels, primarily in his case Decca, to preserve some of the greatest productions by the day’s leading casts – Pavarotti’s finest moments (and those of his esteemed collaborators from Dame Joan Sutherland to Mirella Freni) would not be with us today.
Currently, there are still labels which show such vision – and they’re often the ones that commit to an artist and stick by them over many years and projects (Erato’s Berlioz recordings under the conductor John Nelson and DG’s Mozart operas under Yannick Nézet-Séguin immediately spring to mind). Such labels need the ongoing support of listeners (whether CD collectors, or subscribers to streaming services): it’s thanks to them that the glories of today’s operatic world will be just as vivid to tomorrow’s audience as those of Pavarotti’s heyday are to ours.