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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

He made the world smile

By Norman Lebrecht / September 6, 2007

He liked to be called the Tenor of the Century, only to deny it vehemently – ‘no, that’s not me, that’s Enrico Caruso.’

Luciano Pavarotti looked up to the great Neapolitan as a lifelong role model, both in singing technique and in his ravenous appetite for stardom. But where Caruso was renowned as a voice on record, Pavarotti exploited every fluid ounce of his enormous bulk and every trick in the media almanac to become famous simply for being himself.

Millions who never crossed the threshold of an opera house or tuned in to a classical station claimed instant recognition of the beaming fat man with the white table napkin that served him as handkerchief, sweat mop and stage prop.

He was as much of an icon as Princess Diana, one of his devoted fans; he appeared distraught at her funeral ten years ago, declaring himself too upset to sing. They appeared together on a tribute postage stamp, inseparable forever. More than just a celebrity in his own right, he enhanced and validated the celebrity of others.

Pavarotti was, in every sense of the word, immense. He weighed enough for three men – over 300 pounds at peak – and while he considered his size ‘my greatest regret’, it was also his visible trademark, the means by which he could not be mistaken for any other performer. He yo-yoed up and down the scales all his life, but never to any manageable or mistakable proportions.

Being huge, was no impediment to his sex-appeal. Women of all ages flocked to his dressing room and Big Lucy took whatever pleasures came his way, boasting of his prowess. During a 37-year marriage to Adua, who managed a stable of opera singers and conductors, there was a mistress in attendance for most of his tours. He cut free in 2003 and married Nicoletta Mantovani, a backstage girl in granny specs who was younger than his three daughters; Bono and Bocelli sang at their showbiz wedding in Modena. It doesn’t get bigger than that.

Depleted by the divorce settlement and a long-running tax evasion case in Italy which he settled in 2001 for ten million Euros, his fortune was nonetheless greater than any opera singer’s before or since, the rewards of quarterly record royalties and a million dollars minimum every time he sang in a public park or a parking lot, which he did abundantly in the last decade of his career.

He was, by a margin of 70 million units, the biggest selling opera singer on record, outstripping Maria Callas by three to one. Yet his repertoire was small – 30 operas to Placido Domingo’s 110 – his range of expression was monolithic and his credibility as a young bohemian lover was never going to get him into RADA. No-one seemed to mind. People paid hundreds of dollars to see Pavarotti, not Puccini. He was, as the German critic Jurgen Kesting put it, ‘both the prototype of the opera tenor, and its parody.’

As a lad in Modena, where he was born in October 1935, he preferred football to singing and was still a nippy winger when he made his debut as Rodolfo at Reggia Emilia in 1961. It was Covent Garden that put him on the map. Spotted in a travelling company in Ireland, he was hired in 1963 by casting director Joan Ingpen as cover for the fragile Giuseppe di Stefano and stood in for all but one of 27 Bohemes, winning a spot on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Tall as he was, he was the only tenor who could look gawky Joan Sutherland in the eye and her conductor husband Richard Boynyge took him firmly under wing.

The Bonynges took him on tour to Australia and the United States, where a brilliant publicist, Herbert Breslin, branded him King of the High Cs. He appeared in 1971 at the Metropolitan Opera in Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment, hitting nine successive top Cs with bell-like resonance. Breslin became his manager and the big man became a household brand – on record, on radio, on television. He even survived Hollywood with a disastrous rom-com, Yes Giorgio, that made spaghetti westerns look authentic. Breslin called him lazy. Big Lucy never bothered to learn much of any other language. He knew the world would forgive him anything, so long as he turned on that big beam, and sang.

Domingo, polyglot and twice as bright, suppurated and suffocated in his shadow. Both insisted they were not enemies. Neither missed an interview opportunity to do the other down. Their hatchet was ultimately buried when Jose Carreras, recovering from leukaemia, proposed a Three Tenors Concert at the 1990 World Cup in Rome. It yielded a 12 million best-seller and catapulted Pavarotti to another plateau of fame, several rungs above his partners.

Tawdry repeat performances, long with Pavarotti and Friends concerts at Modena where he duetted with the likes of Elton John, Liza Minelli and Barry White, tarnished an artistic reputation already damaged by frequent cancellations. He once called in sick to Covent Garden from a beach on a south sea island, girls in grass skirts dancing all around.

But for his public Pavarotti could do no wrong and when he deigned to return to the Royal Opera House he was the one who bestowed a smile of forgiveness. Breslin brutally exposed his human failings in a post-break-up memoir, The King and I, and Big Lucy beamed on regardless. Like a battleship surrounded by fishing boats, he was untouchable and unsinkable.

No-one could claim to know him well, for there was never much to know. He seldom opened a book, had little curiosity about life or the hereafter, and very little conversation that did not concern pasta, football, horses, fast cars and the latest tittle-tattle from the opera gossip machine. He went through life innocent, and his wounded look when charged with deception – he was caught miming in concert to his own recordings – or tax fraud would have melted the heart of a hanging judge.

Pavarotti was a phenomenon of nature. No singer had such ease of delivery, such a glorious ability to find a sound somewhere in his depths and allow it to materialise as if unaided by human effort. He was unequalled as a young man in bel canto roles, usually as Sutherland’s foil, outstandingly as Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore. In midlife, his Rodolfo in La Boheme and Riccardo in Ballo in Maschera were epochal, as were Cavaradossi in Tosca and the Duke in Rigoletto.

He read music with difficulty and feared the later, darker Verdi, but his recordings of the Requiem with Solti, Muti and Karajan will be treasured forever for their simple spirituality. His long farewell was truncated by pancreatic cancer and the accumulated detriments of obesity. Yet for all his suffering Pavarotti will have died with a smile, knowing that he had added greatly to the sum of human happiness and that, like Sinatra with whom he once duetted, he had done it in no way but his own.

That’s what Big Lucy did: he made people happy.

Read more tributes on Pavarotti at LSM's Pavarotti spotlight

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


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