This month sees a new Verdi recording from Luciano Pavarotti, the opera I Lombardi. John Steane went to visit the great tenor at his home in Pesaro and conversation ranged widely...
The first and most important tenor in Pavarotti’s life was his father; the second was Beniamino Gigli. When he was 12 years old, Pavarotti became gravely ill. He went into a coma, the doctor said they must prepare for the worst and a priest was called to administer the last rites. In convalescence he was given such treats as the family could afford, and one of these was a visit to the opera. More than that, he was allowed into the theatre early on the day of the performance and heard the great tenor exercising his voice. The opera was Lucia di Lammermoor with Lina Pagliughi in the title-role. Gigli did not take part in the dress rehearsal (if there was one) but arrived at the theatre about midday and for some 40 minutes sang for practice, warming up and assessing the acoustics. Afterwards, through his father, who in the past had sung some small parts in operas with Gigli, the boy was introduced. ‘And how long did it take you to learn to sing like that?’ he asked. ‘1 stopped,’ said Gigli, ‘for the time being, just five minutes ago.’
Of the performance itself –‘12-year-olds are very critical,’ he says – the young Luciano did not think so very highly. Pagliughi and Gigli hardly answered to his notion of lovers and their ways: for one thing they sang from opposite sides of the stage. The local baritone, Enrico or Henry Ashton of the performance, presented a much more credible character, and on the whole made a more favourable impression. But the night was Gigli’s after all. At the end of the opera a piano was wheeled on stage and Gigli gave an impromptu concert. Everybody shouted for their favourites – ‘La donna è mobile’, ‘Vesti la giubba’, ‘E lucevan Ic stelle’ – and all requests were granted. This was the life! The more Gigli sang, the more his voice blossomed. The whole house rejoiced in song. The great tenor had come into his kingdom, and the 12-year-old boy never forgot it.
He had always known that a tenor was a very fine thing to be. Father was one, and (now in his eighties) still is. I had rather imagined that their house would have possessed a wind-up gramophone and a pile of 78s on Voce del Padrone; but no, ‘That was for rich people’. Instead, the records and most particularly the tenors came into their home over the radio. Family legend has it that at the age of four as Giacomo Lauri-Volpi launched over the airwaves his top C in ‘Di quella pira’, Luciano climbed on to the table and proclaimed: ‘My father is a tenor, and I am a little tenor’.
Pavarotti recalls these things now as childhood illuminations. There were not many of those in wartime Italy. When I met him in the sunshine of a July afternoon he sat happily at a table in the garden of his summer house at Pesaro; ‘maestro’ to staff and visitors, he was among friends and with the knowledge of a world beyond, in which, in another sense, he is a friend of all. It is a very different world from the one in which he grew up. In the worst years his town was occupied by Germans and bombed by the Allies. If the partisans killed a German, ten Italians would be killed in reprisal. He saw people hanging in the streets. His father was arrested and his life spared only because he was a baker and therefore indispensable to friend and foe alike. The boy himself was shot at but the bullet went wide. In these circumstances music meant much, and that meant songs and opera over the radio, church music with the choir (in which Luciano sang alto) and the sound of singing round the home.
All of this, as we talked, brought to mind the terms of the tenor- controversy in Gramophone’s recent correspondence columns. I tried to explain it, hoping not to misrepresent the argument of its instigator who had asked whether anyone could explain why such a shortage of Verdi-and-Puccini tenors prevailed in the post-Pavarotti generation while other voices were in comparatively ample supply. ‘Well, he’s wrong,’ was the response to that one, ‘Tell me, my friend,’ he says, ‘where are the Verdi mezzos, where are the Verdi baritones? Where are they? Of tenors we have many, many, plenty, plenty.’ ‘Would you like to name a few?’ I ask, but no, he would not, for to name a few would be unjust to the unnamed many.
Perhaps this sanguine attitude towards the future of his species was simply further evidence of a cheerful temperament. He had mentioned that when he pulled through the illness of his boyhood and realized fully how serious it had been he resolved forever to be an optimist. Whether he is indeed a man who will always look on the bright side I hardly know – one cannot sit chatting on a Saturday afternoon with all the good things of life around and be sure that because there is literally not a cloud in the sky it may not be so metaphorically as well. But certainly he is one who tries to brighten life for others. He is an immensely active man, and not only in his own personal concerns (which include painting, horses and a vineyard). At an age when it would be perfectly possible, and indeed well within the tradition, to retire from professional life, do a bit of teaching and otherwise enjoy his wealth, leisure and reputation, he has incorporated into his life the championing of needy causes. Across the sea from where we were sitting is the former Yugoslavia. Not so far off, as the crow flies, are children whose lives have been shattered by war. With fundraising concerts and a great deal more of personal enterprise he has worked to provide for the abysmally divided city of Mostar a Music Centre which may help to provide hope and colour for these young lives and perhaps to further unity through the means in which music is almost uniquely potent. The rebuilding of the Fenice Opera House at Venice has also benefited from these concerts. In them he has worked with pop stars, partly because they will attract so many more to come and watch and give, and partly because some of those same people may, perhaps to their own surprise, catch the excitement of music and of the tenor voice which he himself found as he grew up with the sound of it in his ears.
Professionally, too, he remains active in a way for which he is not commonly credited. Thought of as a singer with a small repertoire, he is still adding to it, so that this month I Lombardi becomes an unexpected entry in the impressively long list of his recorded operas. He could also settle easily enough for a safe life with a core repertory in the opera house (and many will assume he has done so); yet this winter brings a reappearance after 20 years as Calaf in Turandot, just as last year he risked once again La fille du régiment, the opera of his youth, with its high Cs and proportionately high expectations.
I found in talking to him that several of the paths I wanted to tread were not going to get us far; across the track a friendly fog would appear and halt progress along that line (‘I like them all’ he would say when asked to specify a preference, or ‘it’s a matter of taste’, or ‘times change’). And then, I thought, why should a man be expected to talk about the fine points of his workaday art when (for instance) Mostar is more urgent, memories are more inviting, the wine and cheese pass hospitably round the table while sea and sky resound in a great unison of contentment.
From the talk one harvests fragments. They are mostly to be caught (I come to realize) when he turns to look directly with something to tell that has suddenly come to mind – Gigli in an old world splendour of fur-coat and fedora, the choir from Modena winning the prize at Llangollen all those years ago with Lassus’s In nomine Jest, the manager’s call to him in Dublin to proceed to London and make his first record there that same night at seven. A moment’s glow of affection for some recording – his Bohéme with Freni, for instance – or for a senior artist such as Aureliano Pertile, this too is for grateful gleaning. ‘An ugly voice,’ he says of Pertile. ‘Ugly?’ I say. ‘Yes,’ and he makes a kind of grinding noise. ‘But such musicality. When you are feeling dim and down in what you are working on, then you go to Pertile, and the life will come back.’
He’s not too sure what to make of it (and neither am I) when I tell him that my favourite Pavarotti record is Volare (‘I don’t think I have found quite the style,’ he says). But then he is interested when I suggest as an addition to the repertory Il sogno di Geronzio. ‘I don’t know that work,’ he says. Ah. Well, I say, it’s by our Edward Elgar, and you’d have it translated into good Italian, sung with two choice Italian colleagues and with the best choir Italy can supply. ‘Then’, I say, ‘you’d introduce it to a new audience, almost make a new work of it, and have a new and a grand part for yourself.’ ‘Well…’ he scratches his ear and looks a little doubtful. And ‘I think our time is up,’ says my companion from England.