Luciano Pavarotti – the birth of a legend

Philip Kennicott Fri 13th March 2015

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Pavarotti’s voice evolved into a thing of great beauty. Philip Kennicott charts Pavarotti’s progress from callow artist to self-sustaining singer

Gramophone, April 2014

Gramophone, April 2014

In the end, it seemed that Luciano Pavarotti may have lost his original audience, those passionate opera lovers who remembered an eager young tenor with a honey-coloured voice and absolute fearlessness in the most daunting bars of Donizetti and Bellini. Pavarotti the arena idol, the ubiquitous singer of ‘Nessun dorma’, the crossover artist crooning with Sting, Bono and Stevie Wonder, eclipsed the early Pavarotti. Of course, you could still hear the early Pavarotti on recordings, and occasionally remember how extraordinarily charismatic he could be on stage when flashes of the old eagerness and charm showed through the mask of smiling boredom he wore in his later years. For many passionate opera lovers, Pavarotti’s voice eventually became rather like the voice of a politician who has lingered too long on the public stage: so familiar that even its old eloquence began to cloy. It was impossible, in a way, to actually hear Pavarotti while Pavarotti the superstar was still alive.

He’s been dead for more than six years now, and it’s time to resurrect the greatness of the early Pavarotti. A new edition from Decca surveys the years between his first recording of five arias – ‘Che gelida manina’ from La bohème, ‘E lucevan le stelle’ from Tosca, and ‘Questa o quella’, ‘La donna è mobile’ and ‘Parmi veder le lagrime mia’ from Rigoletto – in 1964 and the mid-1970s when he conquered several of the major Puccini roles on disc. ‘Luciano Pavarotti: The First Decade’ is a spectacular reminder of the young artist’s ambition, his natural ease with the bel canto line, his incredible breath support, his brilliantly intuitive singing, and his once-in-a-century vocal gifts. It invites the listener to set aside many of the more complicated feelings about Pavarotti that emerged in later years. And it lets you play an illuminating game: listen to this voice and imagine that it doesn’t belong to Pavarotti, that it wasn’t destined to be the only operatic voice many listeners could identify, that it belonged to an earnest and winning young man named Luciano who had not yet conquered the world, or succumbed to any of the temptations of celebrity.

This is a document of the innocent Pavarotti, the accomplished but still slightly callow artist, the singer who is still working so desperately hard to win over his audience. One of the delights of this edition is a bonus disc that includes five tracks from a recently discovered recording of Pavarotti’s stage debut, in 1961, at the Teatro Municipale in Reggio Emilia. The audience is thrilled by his first ‘Che gelida manina’, just as they would be thrilled by his Rodolfos for decades to come. The sound quality is good enough to hear Pavarotti clearly, though he and the other singers go in and out of focus from time to time. But it clearly registers a detail that one almost never hears in subsequent recordings – a tendency to short phrases and somewhat disconnected lines. The elasticity and rock-solid tonal support aren’t quite there yet, though the top notes are already gorgeous.

And there are moments of actual sloppiness in that first official Decca recording he made three years later. Pavarotti’s longtime manager Herbert Breslin wrote in 2004 that Decca wasn’t yet convinced it had a star on their hands: ‘They didn’t exactly give Luciano red-carpet treatment in the making of it…They flew him in, snapped a picture to put on the cover, did the whole recording in a couple of takes and told him they’d send some copies when they were done.’ Pavarotti is at times slightly behind the beat, and his top notes have that distinct measure of ostentation that one hears in so many less-than-memorable young tenors.

In 1981, years after that first Extended Play debut album, Pavarotti sat down with Richard Bonynge, Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne for a fascinating film How to sing bel canto. In an elegant domestic setting with a piano, they sang snatches of this and that, and talked about the technique and style of the reinvented art form. Pavarotti explained what it meant to cover the top tones, and sang a line the wrong way – bright, open, and pale – and then the right way, in the voice everyone on the planet could recognise.

The false tone he deliberately produced for that film can be heard occasionally in the 1964 album, where his voice doesn’t yet have that extra measure of darkness and heft. You can imagine that this is the voice of an anonymous young tenor who had a few years of singing Rodolfo and Edgar, before passing into obscurity. Something isn’t quite there yet. But by 1966, when he sang the relatively small tenor role of Orombello in Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda with Sutherland and Bonynge, the voice has become the one we know today. The bottom has filled out, the breathing is more natural, and some of the Pavarotti quirks – the endearing flashes of passion that he interjects into the line, usually with more musical than textual purpose – are already there.

As an experiment, I decided to listen first not to the arias – and this edition includes an early excerpts-album of Donizetti and Verdi as well as a recital album of Italian songs – but to the musical middle bits, the ensembles and dialogues that do the essential dramatic work of the opera. I wanted to hear how Pavarotti constructed a role, how he managed the drama and characterisation, as opposed to the pure expressive outbursts. If in later life an evening with Pavarotti at the opera house often felt like everyone who wasn’t Pavarotti was dutifully singing in his shadow, from this first Bellini opera through to the still unrivalled La favorita he recorded in 1974, he proves a magnificent ensemble singer. He seems to serve Sutherland, and when their lines are intertwined or in close parallel motion, the voices are as effortlessly fused as when Sutherland sang with Marilyn Horne.

And there is a clear and consistent quality to Pavarotti’s singing in these middle spaces that goes beyond mere vocal beauty: a tendency to precipitateness. If he lingers a bit luxuriously behind the orchestra in those first arias from 1964, by the time he made that astonishing string of Bellini and Donizetti operas in the late 1960s and early ’70s, he is relentlessly impetuous, jumping into his notes, constantly pushing things forward. Everything he sings is incisive, with a distinctive snap, as if he is physically grabbing at each note.

It’s a habit that suggests eagerness, and at this point in his life, he was very eager indeed. Most accounts of his career chart a slow start: a decade or more separates his 1961 debut and his rise to fame independent of Sutherland a decade or more later. There was a Covent Garden debut in the autumn of 1963 after Giuseppe di Stefano pulled out of a run of Bohèmes. The late critic John Steane remembered hearing him at the Royal Opera two years after that, in La Sonnambula, again with Sutherland, but Pavarotti had yet to make an overwhelming impression on most listeners: ‘It remains very vivid to me, for in the intervals the people I met wanted to talk about Sutherland and I wanted to talk about “the tenor”.’ And this was two years after his engagement by Sutherland and Bonynge for a 1963 Australian tour that is often credited as the event that launched him on his path to greatness. Later, famously, he said that this period of intensive collaboration with Sutherland helped him develop his breathing technique – which I think can be clearly heard by comparing the 1961 Bohème excerpts with the full-length account made with Herbert von Karajan and Mirella Freni in 1972.

Sutherland was attracted to Pavarotti, in part, because of his stature. On stage, he didn’t seem quite so ridiculous as other, shorter tenors next to her towering 6ft 2in height. But it was a brilliant partnership on a musical level as well, and led to a succession of recordings that have been, for decades now, the definitive touchstones for the essential operas of Donizetti and Bellini. It also kept him securely in repertoire that was exactly right for his voice. In retrospect, these early roles seem brilliantly well chosen, both vocally and for Pavarotti’s always rather minimal acting skills. The tendency to attack the line – though never a musically ugly way – allows the singer to present a credible sense of Donizetti’s dopey swains and Bellini’s self-destructive heroes. They are always rushing into things, joyfully crashing through the comic universe or desperately weaving their own demise with little sense of the consequences of their actions.

'Those nine high Cs aren’t just stunts, they propel the character, the music and the drama forward, and no one has ever sung them better'

Pavarotti’s Tonio in La fille du régiment (a relatively rare recording of him singing in French, though the bonus disc includes some fascinating bits from Massenet) is impulsive and cocksure, with a winning sense of his own charisma. ‘Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête’ isn’t just a musical marvel of nature, a document of one of the most naturally gifted singers of the past century, it is also an expression of Tonio’s character, his joy in life, his pinnacle of happiness. Those nine high Cs aren’t just stunts, they propel the character, the music and the drama forward, and no one has ever sung them better. Later in the same act, when he raises a glass to toast France and asserts his new identity and new loyalty, the voice seems to clench at the line ‘Jamais! jamais! plutôt briser mon verre’ – a small but striking detail that suggests a brashness under the exuberant high spirits of the character.

Although in later years his Nemorinos lost their sparkle and felt a bit like phoned-in vocal concertos, Pavarotti’s 1970 L’elisir d’amore portrays a credible character, bumptious but charming. There was a particular personality type, a psychological profile, that fitted both his voice and his stage manner, which made him a great Duke in Rigoletto (represented here by the recording he made with Sutherland and Bonynge in 1971) and an even better Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera (the 1971 Decca account with Renato Tebaldi is not, unfortunately, included in this set, but there are excerpts). Whether good or evil, the essential Pavarotti character is bathed in sunlight, alive to pleasure, a bit rash and irrepressibly likeable.

Even the more tragic figures feel robust – high-spirited young men who rush unknowingly into misfortune. In his 1974 La favorita made with Bonynge and Fiorenza Cossotto, he sings with two basic expressive modes – a light, sunny, almost delicately quivering tenor, and a darker, tighter, more focused voice. And by toggling between these two basic tonal qualities, he somehow manages to project an affecting Fernando. Listen to him in the end of Act 3, when the first aspersions are cast upon him and his beloved newlywed Leonora. The drama is all in the voice, which seems to coil up ever so slightly, as if turning from polished pine to dark mahogany.

'The pure effortlessness of his singing became a dramatic foil. Beauty was everywhere, but nuance often hard to find'

As I’ve already suggested, no one ever declared Pavarotti a great actor, but if you spend time away from the two- or three-dozen arias that remain so well known, so familiar from his distinctive renditions, you do find a kind of acting, rather like one hears in good oratorio singers. It is vocal acting, a matter of small degrees of colour and inflection. Where the text is complicated, we sometimes get less of what Pavarotti does best, which always feels like an elegant surfing on the line. In later years, the pure effortlessness of his singing became a dramatic foil. Beauty was everywhere, but nuance often hard to find. If you asked those who know Pavarotti only from his many traversals of ‘Nessun dorma’ what that aria is about, what the basic mood of the music is, I doubt very many people would have a clue based on the superheated, muscular way Pavarotti came to sing it. But in 1971, as Edgardo, all the dramatic data is fully in place; it’s also evident in the basic vocal profile he creates in ‘Orrida e questa note’ at the beginning of Act 3 of Lucia di Lammermoor.

And when the music carries the majority of the weight, in songs and sacred works that allow you to drift off from the nuance of the text, the pleasure of Pavarotti’s singing is unalloyed. In 1973, in Bologna, Pavarotti and Bonynge recorded a recital album of arias and songs, including some classic bits of lovely fluff by Tosti, and five favourite Bellini chestnuts set to Metastasio, Fumaroli and Pindemonte. One could quibble that even the most trivial of these pieces has a text and a truly great singer would dig into those words a little more than Pavarotti does. But that would be churlish. This is music that seems to sing itself, and it flows out of Pavarotti in such wonderful, purling streams of golden sound that you are inevitably seduced away from any kind of resistance.

Or take the tenor part from the Verdi Requiem he recorded with Sir Georg Solti in Vienna in 1967. From his opening Kyrie, the voice is suffused with anguish and intensity, to the point that it is only in later phrases that the ear detects the more natural, limber Pavarotti sound. The ‘Ingemisco’ may be the most beautiful ever recorded, and one hears more of the whole range of Pavarotti’s gifts in these three-and-a-half minutes than in many longer, more superficially dramatic musical statements. He lightens the voice to a daring degree and achieves a tenderness that rivals the best moments of his 1972 Rodolfo from La bohème. My only quibble with how this edition deals with Pavarotti’s contributions to sacred music is the absence of the Rossini Stabat mater recorded in 1971. With luck, perhaps the next instalment will include the magnificent Rossini Petite messe solennelle from 1977.

The wonder of Pavarotti’s career was its longevity, and while this edition covers only the first decade of his recorded oeuvre, it contains the seeds of that longevity. I hesitate to read too much into those tracks from 1961 on the bonus disc – the sound can’t be entirely trusted – but I hear in them a good but minor tenor steeped in a rather old-fashioned style of Italian singing. I believe this Pavarotti could have moved audiences, as he clearly did, for a time; I’m not sure he would have still been singing in 2006. Something changes in those early years, and the easy explanation is that time in Australia with Sutherland. But that’s too facile. Certainly any advice he may have solicited or taken had an impact. But the change is more fundamental than just a matter of breathing. The voice is stitched together and he learns to trust his intuition. He becomes a self-sustaining singer.

Decades later, it became painfully clear that Pavarotti wasn’t a terribly intellectual or curious artist, and perhaps the seeds of that are here too. He was a captivating Nemorino, but Nemorino is not a role to spend a lifetime singing. Nor the Duke from Rigoletto or even Rodolfo, though many tenors plough this small field for decades. Plácido Domingo was, by contrast, probing and restless, and that restlessness made him as exciting an artist in his sixties as he was in his thirties. Pavarotti didn’t take that route. But there’s no reason to linger too much on that in this story. In the music represented here, there is nothing but vitality, a gorgeous artlessness and an enduring appeal.

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Gramophone.

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