07 September 2007

Luciano Pavarotti

As Mario Cavaradossi, in Puccini's Tosca

I am not a crook. In my life thus far, I have stolen only two things. The first was three quarters of a link of chain, which I found on the floor of a hardware store. I picked up that morsel and put it in my pocket, with the idea that it might be useful in one of my arts-and-crafts projects: it was, needless to say, of no possible use to anyone else. Nevertheless, my mother gave me hell for taking it. I was about ten. A mere eight years later, I stole again: a ticket stub to a performance of Puccini’s Tosca, by the Metropolitan Opera on tour in Dallas.

The stars were Magda Olivero, the Italian soprano making an extremely belated Met debut (she was in her late sixties at the time); and Luciano Pavarotti. It was, not surprisingly, impossible to buy tickets, once the season subscribers had their fill, since the tour repertoire also included Beverly Sills’ Dallas farewell (as Norina, in Don Pasquale), and a Wagner opera, especially rare in that part of the country. (The Dallas Civic Opera had only recently presented its first Wagner opus, Tristan und Isolde, with Jon Vickers and Roberta Knie.) It was in truth the Wagner that put me off of buying a season subscription; to this day, those Teutonic bombasterpieces hold but little appeal for me. My friend Ben Schroth, the only other kid in my high school who liked opera, was a serious Wagner buff, yet we addressed my Italianate tastes, not his Germanic, by going to the Music Hall at Fair Park on opening night and listening to Don Pasquale while we sat in the lobby, then getting Sills’ autograph at the stage door afterwards. We got our picture in the paper as a reward: in the photograph, we’re blocking the camera’s view of Francis Robinson, the tour director, while Sills signs other people’s programs.

The next night, we were prepared. We sat in the lobby for the first act of Tosca, when we noticed that no one was guarding the bins into which ushers had thrown the torn halves of paid tickets. At the end of the first intermission, I deftly fished out two ticket stubs, showed them to the ushers, and Ben and I were admitted into the hall. Scrupulously honest even in our criminality, we didn’t even try to take unoccupied seats, if there were any. We sat on the floor to watch.

Although a sound recording of that performance exists (and is commercially available here in Europe), I’ve often regretted not taking notes — to say nothing of a video recording — of Olivero at work. Even at the time, only a few years into my operamania, I knew she was a practitioner of a lost art, the last vestige of a different era. Her acting was vivid but highly stylized, as if she were in a silent film, always conscious of the pictorial line of her body. This made sense, in context, since Tosca was created onstage by Sarah Bernhardt, whose own pictorial line was one of the principal inspirations of Art Nouveau; besides, Floria Tosca is an opera singer in an extreme situation, and you don’t expect her to behave like your next-door neighbor taking out the garbage.

Pavarotti was in a class by himself. His superstardom had only just begun; he was still “merely” an opera singer. His high notes still rang out with reckless ease, especially when, in Act II, he cried, “Vittoria! Vittoria!” and all of Fair Park held its collective breath. In later years, it became increasingly difficult to remember why we were so excited by him in the first place: his voice lost its lustre as he squandered his gifts in stadiums and idiotic television shows, and he became a pre-processed package, “Giorgio” with an exclamation point, a newspaper headline, a magazine cover, a Three Tenor who sang “Nessun dorma” whether you wanted him to or not. In 1979, he was still in his prime, and there was nobody to touch him.

Yet what I remember most clearly is not the sound of his voice but a gesture. He was never a subtle actor, but in Act III, as he awaited execution, he turned upstage to the painted backdrop that depicted the city of Rome. He outstretched his arms, then seemed to embrace all of Rome, and all of life. It was a stunt, of sorts, meant to prolong the applause that greeted his account of “E luccevan le stelle,” yet it was also very much in character: he had just told us that “Never have I loved life so much.”

After the performance, Ben and I returned to the stage door. Olivero had sung several times in Dallas, with the Civic Opera, but it was clear she was delighted to be singing now with the Met, and you could hardly stop her from giving you autographs and photos: I daresay if I’d asked for a lock of her hair or the keys to her house, she’d have given them to me. Her wreath was crowded with laurels long since; the last of the great (or even tolerable) verismo composers had written operas just for her, and she was written up already in all the history books. But her Met performances were a surprise, and even if she’d anticipated them, her success in them was unanticipated, unimaginable. Her delight was infectious.

Pavarotti arrived a few minutes later. He was bundled up against the cold, although it was a warm night in May in Dallas, and he’d wrapped a muffler around his neck and most of his face. He looked ready for a bank hold-up. Hard to believe nowadays, but Olivero counted more admirers than Pavarotti that night. I gave him my program to sign, then thanked him in Italian. “Grazie,” said I, and his eyes widened, caught off-guard by the sound of his native language in North Texas. “Prego,” he replied, through eight layers of muffler.

That was our only meeting. I didn’t tell him I’d heard his performance illegally, but I think he’d have understood and forgiven me. You listen to him singing Rodolfo, the young poet in La Bohème, and his identification with the youthful, rebellious artist is so complete that you know he’d identify with an impoverished student who bent the rules to hear him. I’ve never heard anyone to rival him for the effortlessness, the freedom of his high notes or the verve of his characterization. The fact that he hardly read music only made his interpretation of Rodolfo (and several other roles besides) seem more authentic: this was not something he’d studied but a force of nature he had liberated.

Listen to him sing “Che gelida manina,” Rodolfo’s big aria, and you’ll hear what I mean. The song starts out as a pick-up line, one Rodolfo has probably used many times, but his conviction grows by the stanza. “In my poverty, I’m wealthy as a lord,” he tells the girl he’s just met; “yet all that I have has just been stolen by the jewels in your eyes.” As he continues, “Ma questo non m’accora” — but that doesn’t matter to me — his voice cracks, and you realize that he realizes that this girl is the love of his life. He concludes in a tender whisper: “Now that you know something about me, tell me about yourself.”

He kept singing long after he should have kept quiet, and it became difficult for me to sit through his later performances. I walked out of an Aida in New York, because it was painful to hear him massacre the music. He alternately cheated and squawked high notes that used to flow as freely as wine. Coupled with his circus sideshow celebrity, his diminished vocal ability made him worse than a caricature of his former self: he was a traitor, an assassin, murdering the artistry I’d loved.

And his voice wasn’t all that suffered. His weight and his knees had a contentious relationship: the more famous, the fatter he got, and the more stress he put on his knees, and the more difficult it became to exercise, and so he got fatter still. In Turandot, when he was supposed to bang a gong, dancers had to do the job for him. When he sang Pagliacci with Teresa Stratas, he was no longer able to chase her around the stage or even to lunge at her with his knife in the last scene: instead, she ran a figure eight around the Met stage before returning to him and falling on his blade. Watch the video and you’ll see.

I joked that, after singing Pagliacci for so many years, Teresa had gleaned the insight that her character was suicidal, but neither of us laughed much. We remembered Pavarotti as he used to be, so unlike the creature he had become.

No artist lives in amber: one way or another, Pavarotti would have changed over time, no matter what I thought or what he did. If his mega-celebrity brought newcomers to the opera house, or kept his new wife happy, so be it. But it’s for those first twenty years of his career — and not the last twenty — that I continue to say, “Grazie.”