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Sheer Italianate Tenorial Beauty (Update)

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).

Tommasini writes:

[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.

Final thought:

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.



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Pavarotti referred to his voice in the third person, "The Voice," as if he knew it was a gift he was lent from some higher place. God seems to give some awfully unworthy people great gifts. Think Caravaggio. Think Gaugin. Think Einstein.Perhaps that's because each of us is equally beloved of God, despite what we think of each other--I guess that would be the St. Julian of Norwich view.Whatever. I've often thought that the closest we can come on earth to finding out what entering might be like, is listening to Pavarotti hold that last "vincero" in "Nessun Dorma."

I also really felt thye news of the death of Pavarotti. It's a little bit like being orphaned. We all have our different metaphors for that unmistakeable voice. I think of warm, rich honey. Grazie a Dio!

La Donna e Mobile, Mama, Ava Maria and so many other sons were never done better. But with Panis Angelicus it was impossible not to sense heaven present when he sung it. No one did it better.

For anybody who has Rhapsody (the online music service, which for $12.99 a month I think is a great bargain), do an album search for "I lombardi alla prima crociata" (the whole thing, because there are two other recordings listed as just "I Lombardi"). Play Disk 2, Band 8 ("In cielo benedetto"). The recording itself is not at all good (it's a live performance), but the singing is glorious.

I'm in Bologna today, at the wonderful Alberigo institute for church history. The funeral is in nearby Modena in 4 hours time. Hope to catch it on tv. I see that Mirella Freni, Luciano Pavarotti's partner in the great Karajan recordings of Puccini, is also Modenese. Another transcendental partnership was with Joan Sutherland in Maria Stuarda and in Rigoletto. Thank heavens for the gramophone... Pavarotti's silver voice was always used with great artistry. He sang only in Italian and his articulation of the language was admired. Opera, one forgets, is as much a literary as a musical phenomenon, and it has perhaps added to the glow of the Italian language as well as benefiting therefrom.

Here are two Italian newspapers whose online edition has news, photos, and videos of Pavarotti's funeral today in the Modena cathedral. The middle one has Bocelli singing Mozart's "Ave verum corpus". (I couldn't get the "Corriere" video to work.)Jean, if I understand correctly, they played a recording of his "Vincero!" at the end, during the recessional.

He was a very good albeit lazy tenor. Without the laziness he would have been great.

A singer who works hard frequently achieves little more than a shortened career. Knowing how hard to push your voice in both existing and new repertoire is probably among the most underrated talents for a singer. It's also unclear to me that Pavarotti did not work hard -- albeit much harder at the beginning of his career, like just about everyone else, but unlike just about everyone else, he came much closer to perfection in his chosen field. A voice is really just an instrument, and Pavarotti was given something close to a Stradivarius. If he had worked harder on technique perhaps he would have foregone the natural advantages of his instrument, advantages which, as I listened to a retrospective on him yesterday, were truly glorious.

Thanks for the links, Fr. Komonchak. It took me a few moments to figure out why Andrea Boccelli looked so different--his somewhat scruffy beard was gone, though his voice was instantly recognizable.

Last night's "60 Minutes" did a retrospective of their 2 interviews with LP over the years.In one of the segments Mike Wallace mentioned that LP was considered to be lazy. LP thought for a second or 2 and then admitted to being lazy.That being said, I have always enjoyed the music of his earlier years (3 Tenors series are not included in his best by far) and will continue to listen. I just wish that he hadn't focused so much on being a pop idol in his latter years. Maybe he was tired of/bored with his operatic status.Raequiscat in Pacem

I think the last word on operatic laziness should be Donizetti's -- When the young Donizetti was asked if he thought Rossini had really written the Barber of Seville in thirteen days he replied, "Of course, you know how lazy he is!"But I'm not really sure how lazy Pavarotti was -- I remember one of the early Opera in the Park (Golden Gate) concerts where we happened to be walking across the bandstand in the morning and noticed that Adler and the boys were rehearsing. Pavarotti was there, in front of an audience of about fifty people, exuding the full charisma -- except that (see Fr. Imbelli's comment above) he pulled his punches on the high C's.I don't think the problem with the later Pavarotti was just he was bored with his operatic status -- it reminds me more of my attempts to convince my daughter that Bellini is more significant opera composer than Puccini I remember his first Aida, with Maria Chiara, I've heard he was better with Leontyne Price subbing, and it just didn't seem to have the magic of the earlier Pavarotti. But he was awfully good, I just wasn't sure if he was reveling in being Radames or being a superstar. (The only really bad Pavarotti I ever heard was Il Trovatore, with Pavarotti and Sutherland, whom I usually enjoyed, badly out of place -- and Shirley Verrett stealing the show.)Much the most beautiful aesthetic moment of my life, the time the earth stood still and the heavens opened, was Pavarotti singing Quando le sere al placido some time about 1975

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