It’s easy to dismiss Luciano Pavarotti as the opera singer who took opera to the masses: images of him singing with a microphone – signature white handkerchief to hand – in huge stadiums filled to capacity swiftly come to mind. What is perhaps less obvious, however, was the remarkable career and talent of the Italian tenor who, through a number of bel canto and other key repertory roles, stunned the world with his extraordinary singing, delivered with thrilling vigour, incisiveness, golden high notes and an unmistakable tone.
But a greater engagement with his artistry was not, it appears, what Ron Howard’s new full-length biopic on the renowned artist was set out to do. Instead, we are left with what feels like a broad brush strokes impression of his career and an intimate portrait of Pavarotti the man, told through interviews with family members and colleagues: first wife Adua Veroni and their daughters, second wife Nicoletta Mantovani, former student, assistant and lover Madelyn Renée, as well as co-tenors José Carreras and Plácido Domingo, New York manager Herbert Breslin and London promoter Harvey Goldsmith, among others. What emerges is a friendly, benign portrayal of a warm, loving, larger-than-life figure whose simplicity and schoolboy charm – described by many with the Italian term monello – won over the hearts of those around him.
The film starts with the rare and unlikely footage of Pavarotti travelling through the Amazonian jungle in a journey leading to the Manaus opera house in Brazil, where he is then filmed singing alone on stage, following in the footsteps of Enrico Caruso who performed at the opening of the theatre in 1897. It traces his career from his childhood as the son of a baker and tenor in the local choir in 1930s Modena through to his professional debut in the early 1960s, playing Rodolfo in La bohème at the Teatro Municipale in Reggio Emilia.
One of his first international breakthroughs follows a couple of years later, when he served as a last-minute replacement for Giuseppe di Stefano at London’s Covent Garden. Following that, and thanks at least in part to the Australian soprano Joan Sutherland and her husband and conductor Richard Bonynge, he is propelled onto the leading stages of the world. It is opposite her at the Metropolitan Opera in 1972 that his career truly takes off: after singing ‘Ah! Mes amis’ in Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment – the aria known as the Mount Everest for tenors –with an aplomb that left the audience gasping, he is crowned the ‘King of the High Cs’. A decade of operatic triumphs follows, including an exclusive recording contract with Decca.
The hiring of his manager Herbert Breslin, thought of as ‘one of the most hated people in the opera business’ at the time, was in many ways key to his worldwide fame. Breslin surely knew how to build a commercial success, taking Pavarotti from the confines of the opera house and turning him into a mainstream phenomenon: it is during this time that he starts touring America’s concert halls and that we see him in a range of TV commercials and chat shows. He then sells out New York City’s Madison Square Garden in 1984, before touring China in 1986.
It is of course in 1990, at a performance at the ancient Baths of Caracalla in Rome in the eve of the FIFA World Cup final in Italy that Pavarotti captivates a global audience: singing ‘Nessun dorma’ alongside titans Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, the Three Tenors become arguably the biggest operatic brand the world has ever seen. Their performance at the following World Cup in Los Angeles in 1994 is viewed by around 1.3 billion viewers worldwide, cementing their colossal pop-classical stardom.
The film also provides ample coverage of the later part of his career, spent in great part raising money for a number of causes and charities, and fusing musical styles alongside pop stars such as Bono, Sting and Bon Jovi – none of which ever received much critical acclaim. Though here we are very briefly offered a more dispassionate view of things, overall a more disinterested voice is lacking. The intimate accounts from family members which dot the narrative throughout convey a real sense of his personal life and of the cheeky, generous, outgoing personality of a singer who was both commercially successful and, overall, critically acclaimed. However, not much is made of his acting skills on the operatic stage, for instance, or of his cinematic endeavour with the 1982 feature Yes, Giorgio, which turned out to be a flop. There is no mention of his opera-star tantrums either or of his less successful attempts at heavier roles towards the later part of his life.
Opera lovers might also have liked to have seen a more in-depth and sustained discussion of Pavarotti’s musicianship throughout his decades-long career and more critical views on his artistry and contribution to the artform. Still, he remains one of the most spectacular voices of the twentieth century and in so many ways the quintessential Italian tenor – a view the film thoroughly, and unequivocally, confirms.
image_description=Luciano Pavarotti [Photo by Terry O’Neill/Decca Records]
product_title=Pavarotti: A Film by Ron Howard
product_by=A review by Mahima Luna
product_id=Above: Luciano Pavarotti [Photo by Terry O’Neill/Decca Records]