For the past few weeks, we have been hearing about Pavarotti undergoing further treatment for his pancreatic cancer. The news has been cautiously optimistic, until yesterday when Pavarotti’s condition was reported to have worsened. Today we finally heard the news that Pavarotti has left us. I am sure that in the next few weeks we shall be hearing a lot about Pavarotti, the hymns eulogizing the passing of the great tenor, his flamboyant style, and his no-nonsense, anti-establishment approach to widen the opera fan base.He was not as politically savvy as Domingo. Nor was he as sexually appealing and attractive as Bocelli. He was the raw, unrefined lion on stage, and the relentless businessman off stage. If everything written about him was true, then he was at least as shrewd and ruthless as Howard Breslin would describe him to be. If his public behavior was any guidance as to who he really was, then he must savor his moments as opera’s royal paladin, as evidenced by his frequent, last-minute cancellations of public appearances in the twilight of his career. He was the womanizer who would dump his wife of 35 years to hook up with his 26-year-old secretary.
But there is no question that Pavarotti was a talented tenor. In my opinion, he was possibly the most naturally talented tenor in the 20th century. Beniamino Gigli and Giuseppe Di Stefano, two of the best tenors of our time, often looked strained and tired when trying to sustain high notes. Domingo, perhaps the modern-day tenor most beloved by opera aficionados, is a great interpreter of opera composer’s works and a great master of tonal quality, but always sounds as though he couldn’t reach a level of vocal projections that he would want, especially between A5 and C6. Without implying to put down any other tenors, Pavarotti seems to have a natural ability to punch high notes with not only rhythmic precision but also superior tonal quality. I am not merely talking about the nine C6s that Pavarotti famously belted out with ease in “Ah! Mes amis,” in Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment” at the Met in 1972. I am also talking about how he, in his early years, handled Verdi’s requirement of a Bb5 in pianissimo in “Celeste Aida” in Verdi’s “Aida”. To be sure, Pavarotti wasn’t Franco Corelli, who arguably was the best recorded Radames ever, but Pavarotti never had as nimble a voice as Corelli’s, which made rendering of the pianissimo a lot more manageable. I’m sure when I go back to Pavarotti’s earlier recordings, I would rediscover the beauty of Pavarotti’s voice – a bold but agile voice – like a Ferrari creaming a tight corner or Michael Jordan swooshing a turnaround jumper – effortless to the regular eyes, but magical to those who practice such, day in, day out.In terms of singing, Pavarotti’s public legacy will be linked to his high notes and his handling of the passaggios. In my opinion, however, his flamboyant and raw style made him the ultimate, purest interpreter of canzone napoletana/italiane: the Marechiares, the O Sole Mios, the Torna a Surrientos of the world, providing a standard upon which all future tenors of the napoletana genre shall be judged. He will, in my mind, forever be linked with the genre, and the genre will, in my mind, always be linked with Pavarotti.
It is incredibly sad to see him go. Had he entered the world in the early 19th century, he would have left us with nothing tangible except a mythical legacy. But he left us with an incredible amount of recorded music that we and future generations will be able to enjoy. Pavarotti the man has left, but Pavarotti the voice will live and grace us forever.
Obituaries: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The AP (via Yahoo! News).