Luciano Pavarotti was probably the greatest tenor of the twentieth century and the most beloved since Enrico Caruso (1873 – 1921). He was also one of the most commercially successful tenors of all time in part because he won crossover fame as a popular superstar. “I would like to be remembered as the man who brought opera to the masses,” he said, and so he did.
Since his death in 2007, several events have honored his legacy. In 2015, his wife Nicoletta Mantovani opened the Casa-Museo Luciano Pavarotti in Modena, which features photographs, costumes, awards, and his own paintings and recordings in their former large and colorful home. In 2017 on the tenth anniversary of his passing, a star-studded evening of performances was held at the Arena in Verona, a first century A.D. Roman amphitheater that, with its 30,000-spectator capacity, is the world’s largest open-air opera venue.
Then in 2019 “Pavarotti,” Ron Howard’s documentary, was released. It features interviews with family members, opera artists, and managers and promoters who all speak glowingly of the tenor. It is produced by, among others, a representative of Decca Records, Pavarotti’s recording company, and presumably also has the family’s blessing. Hence, the film is an unapologetic tribute to Pavarotti’s genius that only hints at a few of the artist’s flaws.
In my opinion, the documentary does two things very well. First, it documents the trajectory of Pavarotti’s career, which began in Italy in 1961. He made his American debut in 1965 in Miami in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and shortly thereafter his La Scala debut in Puccini’s La bohème. His 1966 role in Donizetti’s La fille du regiment at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, earned him the title of “King of High Cs.” But it was this opera at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1972 that drove the crowd wild resulting in 17 curtain calls.
Pavarotti became even better known for his rendition of the aria, “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot, which became the theme song of BBC’s coverage of the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy (and eventually his trademark song). Then came the first Three Tenors concert, held on the eve of the 1990 FIFA World Cup Final at the ancient Baths of Caracalla in Rome with fellow tenors Plácido Domingo and José Carreras and conductor Zubin Mehta. It captivated a global audience, and the recording became the largest selling classical record of all time. Many Three Tenors concerts followed.
The other aspect of the documentary that I really enjoyed was the portrayal of the artist’s winning personality. He was almost childlike with a beaming smile, witty rejoiners, and good cheer that could charm the pants off of almost anyone (well, that is another story). You are almost transported when you see his giant smile and sparkling eyes.
I thought the documentary was disappointing in at least two ways. Like many compelling heroes, Pavarotti had many faults, which the documentary barely addresses. He often had difficulty remembering his lines. Toward the end of his career, he became demanding and unpredictable. He blew off rehearsals and cancelled appearances. Several opera houses, including Covent Garden in London and the Chicago Lyric Opera considered him persona non grata—the latter after he cancelled 26 of his last 41 scheduled appearances. The documentary only hints at cancellations due to the health of one of his daughters. But it’s important to balance these flaws with his huge generosity of spirit and his countless concerts performed for charity.
What the documentary really lacks is insight into his unbelievable voice—a rich and beautiful instrument that is unmatched today. Supposedly he could not read music, which makes his talent even more compelling. Pavarotti credits Joan Sutherland with teaching him how to breathe. The athletic demands of opera? Without a microphone he projected his voice above a full orchestra to be clearly heard in the upper balconies of a 4,000-seat opera house, and he did this for more than three decades. With all of his accomplishments, he was indeed a superstar.