Una furtiva lagrima

In memoriam.

Pavarotti was (is, thanks to the recorded legacy) my favorite tenor, and I’ve been trying to remember how and why that came about. I only saw him live once, in a Chicago Symphony concert performance of Otello of which all I remember is he was rather under the weather—by the time I started going to the opera, Ardis Krainik had issued her famous ukase in Chicago, so I missed out on any stage performances. (My parents did get to see his Duca di Montova on one of the occasions he didn’t cancel.) In my undergrad days, I was a big Jon Vickers fan, as his style was a better fit for undergrad intellectual iconoclasm. But at some point in the past ten years, Pavarotti took the crown. I think it was because he had some God-given immunity to my opera-fan nitpicking—even a mediocre performance still had that glorious sound and that generous presence, which, for some reason, made me just not care so much about the other stuff, and reminded me just what it is about opera that I love, anyway.

The clip above, from 1988, has it all—the full-out sound, the dictation-worthy diction (see, guys? When I talk about fast, crisp consonants and pure vowels, that’s what I’m talking about), the rhythmic swagger. Opera Chic has more great clips, and La Cieca posts a marvelous 1969 Nemorino that gives you a sense of what had everybody buzzing when he first appeared. (And I can’t resist linking to his final performance, opening the 2006 Torino Olympics with—what else?—”Nessun dorma.” Still damn impressive for a septugenarian, and I just love that the crowd knows to fill in the chorus part.)

Just the other night, my lovely wife and I were talking about Pavarotti (the Rigoletto with Sutherland was on the stereo) and we were saying that a voice like that only comes along every fifty years, and trying to figure out who would have been the Pavarotti of the previous generation, and who was around today who might step into that role. But really, has there ever been another voice like Pavarotti’s? I wonder.


  1. The most beautiful voices of the previous generation, loosely speaking, were those of Gigli, born in 1890, and Bjoerling, born in 1911. Bjoerling died young, at 49 in 1960, but Gigli sang until 1955. My eyes more or less crossed when I ran across a photo of him singing Radames around 1952 or 53 in Stockholm, to the Aida of Birgit Nilsson.

  2. I agree about Gigli’s more muscular sound, and I think that he was more successful in heavier repertory than Pavarotti was, though they are both superb in the lyric rep. Bjoerling’s diction was better in Swedish than Italian, and he was also more expressive in his native language. There’s a sound-only clip of him singing Lohengrin’s farewell, of all things, that is simply astonishing. You can hear it here – http://greatvoices.tripod.com/He was going to record the whole role, dammit.

  3. Though I’ve always preferred Domingo as a musician and an artist, the Pavarotti voice was genuinely unique. His performances in the recordings of “Idomeneo” and “William Tell” alone will probably never be bettered in musical history.There were a couple of famous productions of “Tosca” and “Turandot” in Ponelle productions in the early 1980s, starring Pavarotti and Caballe at the San Francisco Opera, and after hearing them it occurred to me that there was no earthly reason to ever go hear those two operas again. The two singers were both impossibly large and ungainly by that point, and dramatically rather absurd, but it didn’t matter as their singing effortlessly took the audience to another universe.

  4. I don’t know Pavarotti’s <>Idomeneo<> – I can believe he’d have the right kind of sound at the same time that I wonder how he does with “Fuor del Mar.” For me, Ben Heppner is about the best there is. As for <>Tell<>, I have heard that one, and Martinelli’s still the tenor for me, but I realize he’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

  5. No <>Idomeneo<>, but Pavarotti singing “Un’aura amorosa” is < HREF="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJsRfY6xfIM" REL="nofollow">on YouTube<>. Perfectly lovely, but I would imagine the same challenge as with any other Mozart—who do you cast with him?

  6. In my humble opinion, Luciano Pavarotti was the greatest singer of all time. Period. One can pick apart various aspects of his vocals and choose the other tenors, each with some stronger or extra character in some parts of the vocal range. But, none surpass the great Pavarotti when all things are considered.

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