Sheer Italianate Tenorial Beauty (Update)
Robert P. Imbelli September 7, 2007 - 8:05am
Luciano Pavarotti who died yesterday at age 71 was, like only a select number of operatic tenors, immediately recognizable on hearing his glorious voice. I pride myself on being able to recognize Caruso, Gigli, Del Monaco, Di Stefano after only a few notes on the radio. Pavarotti belongs in their company. His voice envelops you like the Mediterranean sun -- and you bask in its glow.
But in addition, as Anthony Tommasini says in his balanced review in today's Times, part of the beauty of Pavarotti's artistry, was not only the luxuriant sound, but the intelligent phrasing. To hear his Italian was to marvel at his diction and instinctive knowledge that opera was more than music, but music wedded to language (however far-fetched the story might be).
[N]o one ever mistook the voice of Luciano Pavarotti.There was the warm, enveloping sound: a classic Italian tenor voice,yes, but touched with a bit of husky baritonal darkness, which made Mr.Pavarottis flights into his gleaming upper range seem all the moremiraculous.
And it wasnt just the sound that was sorecognizable. In Mr. Pavarottis artistry, language and voice were one.He had an idiomatic way of binding the rounded vowels and sputteringconsonants of his native Italian to the tones and colorings of hisvoice. This practice is central to the Italian vocal heritage, and Mr.Pavarotti was one of its exemplars.
For intelligence,discipline, breadth of repertory, musicianship, interpretive depth andvirile vocalism, Mr. Pavarotti was outclassed by his Three Tenorssidekick and chief rival, Plcido Domingo. But for sheer Italianate tenorial beauty, Mr. Pavarotti was hard to top.
Pavarotti's victories and vicissitudes are also well known: the commercial success of "The Three Tenors" concerts and albums, the vocal decline of the past decade and more, the lax work habits. Yet listen to his great recordings of the 1970s, thrill to his artful phrasing, his clarity of expression, and the climactic high "Cs" and one can not quibble with his assertion that his vocal cords were "touched by God."
Yet, thankful as I am for the great joy that he has brought to me and to millions, I also confess a deep sadness that his marriage of more than three decades came to a sad ending, as he became infatuated with his secretary, thirty years his junior. Bitter divorce and subsequent re-marriage ensued.
And I am reminded of the film "Moonstruck" -- a film in which an opera, "La Boheme," figures prominently. One of the film's subplots features Olympia Dukakis as the afflicted wife of a philandering husband. When in anguish she asks a casual acquaintance: why married men run after other women, he ponders and then replies: "Because they fear death."
Every time a tenor strives for a high "C," the strain of his body and the release of the note conveys an almost sexual intensity. It is death-defying. And it takes its toll.
The Archbishop of Modena, Benito Cocchi, celebrated the funeral Mass yesterday for Luciano Pavarotti. His homily (available in Italian here) seems to me to have managed to unite respectful honoring of the deceased with a clear evangelical challenge to those present.
Here, in part, is what he said:
The funeral liturgy is not the exaltation of the deceased, a sort of beatification. It is the prayer that the Christian community makes to God to welcome with his mercy one who has completed his earthly journey and now presents himself before the Lord.
From the human point of view, the funeral rite, in itself, is the acknowledgment of our impotence in the face of death. It is our realization of the end of everything.
In its unfolding (prayers and gestures, incensing and blessing with holy water) it sums up so many elements: the sorrow of those who survive, relatives, friends, admirers. It arouses anguish: the passage from sickness to death, the memory, indeed, the regret, for affections we would have wished to communicate, yet now it is too late. The question of life's meaning.
The wooden coffin has become an insurmountable barrier.
The Archbishop goes on to suggest that, in the silence evoked by an overwhelming sense of helplessness, perhaps we can begin to hear anew the Word who is Jesus Christ himself, and who promises his disciples: "I go to prepare a place for you."
We often criticize the quality of homilies. May I suggest that Archbishop Cocchi has hit all the right notes in difficult circumstances.
Several references have been made to what became Pavarotti's signature piece, the tenor aria, "Nessun Dorma," with its climactic "Vincero, Vincero!"
I would be dishonest were I to deny to thrilling to it as well. Yet, in some ways, it also represents the sign of Pavarotti's compromise: the easy emotional thrill, at the price of a deeper artistry, a fuller maturation, both artistic and, perhaps, personal.
Play the aria, by all means, to remember his glorious, God-given voice. But then turn to one of his recordings of Verdi's terrifying and pleading "Requiem." Play the "Offertory" and listen especially to the plaintive tenor prayer: "Fac eas, Domine, de morte ad vitam transire!" And pray for Pavarotti ... and for one another.
About the Author
Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.