Saturday, September 6, 2014

Pavarotti: A Voice for the Ages (PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I kept the TV on KPBS to watch Pavarotti: A Voice for the Ages, thinking it would be the quite interesting documentary on the late superstar tenor Luciano Pavarotti recently reviewed in Fanfare magazine, a “warts and all” portrait that featured his former manager Hubert Breslin — who had helped build Pavarotti as an attraction and raised him out of the ghetto of opera stardom into full-fledged mass-market celebrity-hood, only to have a bitter falling-out with him. Alas, what this show turned out to be was a hagiographical presentation of clips from Pavarotti’s previous PBS appearances, complete with a few archival interview clips from Pavarotti himself — including a surprisingly revealing comment that he loved appearing on TV because it’s a close-up medium and therefore he didn’t have to act with his body (which, given his sheer bulk, was always a challenge and became increasingly difficult for him as, like Orson Welles, he became even more bloated in his later years than he’d started out) but could communicate character with his face. The show gave an interesting if rather incomplete portrait of Pavarotti the artist, including several depictions of a real-life singer-conductor couple who helped him and frequently appeared with him in the early years — soprano Mirella Freni and her husband, conductor Leone Magiera (an early Italian TV clip of Puccini’s La Bohème with them nearly a decade before they recorded it together with Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic is fascinating — especially for Pavarotti’s attractiveness; he was certainly big but not as huge as he got later, and though hefty he wasn’t so large he wasn’t believable as a starving poet in a Parisian garret) — but it surprisingly doesn’t mention a far more prominent soprano-conductor couple who helped him even more, including getting him his recording contract with British Decca (then known as London Records in the U.S.): Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge.

But then the producers of this show seemed to be going out of their way to minimize Pavarotti the bel-cantist; though his repertory reached at least as far back in operatic history as Mozart’s Idomeneo (revived by the Met in the 1990’s especially for him) and much of his early prominence came from recording scores like Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and La Fille du Regiment and Bellini’s La Sonnambula and I Puritani with Sutherland and Bonynge (indeed, it was his performance of the notoriously difficult aria “Pour mon âme” from Fille du Regiment, with nine, count ’em, nine high C’s, that earned Pavarotti his early nickname “King of the High C’s”), all the opera excerpts in this show were familiar “chestnuts” by Verdi or Puccini. There was a well-sung “Celeste Aïda” from a Met gala tribute to conductor James Levine (alas, shorn of the opening recitative); Pavarotti rather tastelessly boomed out the final high note fortissimo instead of singing it softly as Verdi asked for, but as with such other uncalled-for “Verdi” high notes as the high C at the end of “Di quella pira” in Il Trovatore and the E-flat in alt at the end of “Sempre libera” in La Traviata, just about everybody sings it this way now. (Caruso sang the high note softly in his first recording of “Celeste Aïda” in 1902, left the entire phrase out of his second recording — the 78 rpm master ran out of room — but thereafter sang it loud.) The show was divided into three parts — each separated by the interminable, pleading “pledge breaks” inflicted on PBS viewers by an increasingly financially desperate network (one Republican Congressmember in the 1980’s said he found the “pledge breaks” more offensive than out-and-out commercials, and though he was using this as an excuse to vote to end all federal funding for PBS I could still see his point) — the first showing Pavarotti the opera singer, the second his collaborations with pop stars — including U2, Eric Clapton and Sting — and the third dealing with the whole “Three Tenors” phenomenon, in which the people considered the most important living tenors in the world, Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, grouped together for mega-concerts. The original Three Tenors concert took place in Rome in 1990 and was planned in connection with the final match of the World Cup soccer (or, as the rest of the world outside the U.S. and U.K. terms it, “football”) tournament, and the second one took place in L.A. in 1994, also just before that year’s World Cup final.

It’s indicative of what a phenomenon this became and how it leapfrogged out of the classical-music ghetto that the album of the 1990 concert came out on British Decca/U.S. London and had a respectable classical-style cover (it didn’t use the “Three Tenors” sobriquet and was simply billed as “Carreras-Domingo-Pavarotti in Concert”), while the album and video of the 1994 concert came out on Atlantic and featured a swooping animated logo in which the numeral “3” came dancing out of the sky before it settled down in front of the screen along with the words “The” and “Tenors.” The Three Tenors concerts featured both classical and popular music, and alas the pop selections were pretty ghastly, including a version of the Neapolitan song “O sole mio” used as an excuse for the tenors (especially Pavarotti) to ham it up, and the awful song “My Way,” which began as a French song about a long-term married couple now bored by each other, got changed into the bizarre peroration we know by Paul Anka (who was hired by the song’s publisher to supply an English lyric — an original, not a translation of the original French) and recorded by Frank Sinatra, a horrifyingly bad record because it hooked the egomania that was by far the least attractive part of Sinatra’s public persona. In the Three Tenors’ performances “My Way” has you asking, “What are three guys with nice voices like yours doing with a song like this?” I’m not saying it’s a bad move for opera singers to record pop material, but not when the pop material is so far removed from opera that they haven’t a clue what to do with it; Caruso was able to do material like George M. Cohan’s “Over There” and make it work, but the influence of African-American music on popular music worldwide — manifested in the successive eras of ragtime, jazz, swing, rock and rap — has carried pop music ever farther from opera and made it more difficult for opera singers to find lighter material that can work for them. This is probably why so many opera singers, tenors in particular, fall back on the so-called “Neapolitan Song” genre, of which “O sole mio” (the only song recorded by both of RCA Victor’s two most legendary artists, Enrico Caruso and Elvis Presley) is the most famous example — these songs can be beautiful if they’re treated with respect, as Pavarotti did in what is probably his best singing on this program, Tosti’s “A vucchella,” with Leone Magiera accompanying him on piano. There’s no hamming, no milking, no blatant playing to the audience — just three minutes of finely honed, sweetly voiced romantic singing that remind us what a great voice Pavarotti had even if he didn’t always use it in the best of taste.

The pop songs include “Miss Sarajevo” by U2 — a typical piece of Bonoesque irony inspired by a news item that women in war-torn Sarajevo were hosting a beauty contest, for which Pavarotti’s contribution was a section melodically different from the rest and sung in Italian (which, like everything else in this frustrating program, was not subtitled — opera mavens will know the texts of the well-known arias like Verdi’s “La donna è mobile” and “Celeste Aïda” and Puccini’s “Che gelida manina” and “Nessun dorma” — a piece Pavarotti so extensively publicized that Puccini’s opera Turandot, which it’s from, emerged from the shadows of the established repertory to a level of popularity comparable to Puccini’s “Big Three,” Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly — but it would have been nice to know what Pavarotti was singing about on the less familiar pieces) — and a “Hail Mary” duet with Clapton in which, as Charles pointed out later, it was a good thing Clapton sang the song before Pavarotti did because we wouldn’t have been able to understand the English words from the hash Pavarotti made of them. (This, as Charles pointed out, was probably the reason Pavarotti never sang an opera role in English; though in the reviews of the world premiere production of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa in 1958 the singer praised for the best English diction was, ironically, tenor Nicolai Gedda — the only one whose native language was not English — Pavarotti was no Gedda in terms of the precision of his diction in any language.) The third clip featuring Pavarotti with a pop singer was his duet on César Franck’s “Panis Angelicus” with Sting — and Sting proved as clueless how to “speak” Pavarotti’s musical language as Pavarotti had been to “speak” Clapton’s. Pavarotti’s 1970’s Christmas special from Montréal gave us a precious clip of him singing this solo (he also recorded it and it was on the compilation Pavarotti’s Greatest Hits) and that’s the version that should have been presented here. The statement that most rankled me was made, not by anyone in the program itself, but by the KPBS announcer promoting it, who called Pavarotti “the greatest tenor of the 20th century” — huh? What about Caruso, Melchior, Björling or his contemporary (and fellow “Three Tenors” tenor) Domingo? In a review of a bootleg CD of an early (1973) Pavarotti recital in New York, Bill White wrote in the March-April 2014 Fanfare, “Plàcido Domingo is by all odds probably the best operatic tenor of the last 50 years, but the best tenor voice in that same span in all probability belongs to Luciano Pavarotti” — which probably sums up the difference between them: Pavarotti’s voice was more charismatic, instantly recognizable and overwhelming, but Domingo used his with more intelligence and also dared a considerably wider range of repertoire (including Wagner).

There were odd lacunae on this show, like so many domestic scenes of Naples you’d have thought Pavarotti was born there (he wasn’t — he was born in Modena, in the Po Valley in southern Italy, a smallish town whose other main claim to fame was that Enzo Ferrari established his car factory there) — but on the other hand Pavarotti: A Voice for the Ages is a good hour-long program featuring some of Pavarotti’s loveliest singing, but it still whets my curiosity for the mysterious biographical documentary Hubert Breslin worked on that probably explores the darker side of Pavarotti’s life, including his weird superstitions (he thought that in order to have good luck before a performance he had to find a bent nail backstage, so Pavarotti’s organization — unbeknownst, of course, to him — included a staff member whose job it was to leave bent nails around backstage wherever he was to perform so he’d find one and be reassured that his appearance would go well), his heavy-duty womanizing (an aspect of his character actually worked into the script for Yes, Giorgio, the flop movie he made for MGM in 1982 in which he plays a world-class tenor who loses his voice, is nursed back to both physical and vocal health by a woman doctor, and starts an ongoing relationship with her even though he has a wife and kids back in Italy — and we were supposed to think of this as a happy ending!) and his huge intake of food. Most opera singers try to avoid a big meal in the last hours before a performance because they don’t want to be distracted by indigestion; Pavarotti would often be snacking practically until the moment the curtain went up, and one friend remembers receiving a phone call from him at 3 a.m. while the great tenor was on tour. Thinking it was some sort of dire emergency, the friend rushed to Pavarotti’s room — whereupon Pavarotti told him that the reason he’d summoned him at that hour was he’d just got a new sausage that was so good he wanted his friend to have the opportunity to share it!