Saturday, September 8, 2007

Addio, Maestro.

On Thursday morning, I received e-mail from several friends whose tastes don't usually run to opera - and all expressed sadness at the passing of Luciano Pavarotti. Such was his universal appeal, and universal was the appreciation of that singular voice.

The voice was one of the most thrilling sounds of our time. Yes, much has been made of the high C's he hit again and again - but it was also the sheer brilliance and clarion exuberance it conveyed. A wonder.

Some critics felt a last need to assert their superiority on the announcement of Pavarotti's death by reiterating their tired claims that he sold out by performing with the likes of Sting, the Spice Girls and what not. They went on and on about how he wasn't the most intelligent interpreter of operatic roles. Blah blah blah. One of my friends said, "bastards! let them try to sing Nessun Dorma!" (Watch him sing it) Another said, "those who can, do; those who can't, become critics."

How quickly can you sing "sour grapes" in a falsetto?

Here's where my long-time favorite, Placido Domingo, shone. Set up to be Pavarotti's rival decades ago, the tenors instead reached across those petty expectations and became close friends. Together they teamed up to celebrate the victory over leukemia of their fellow tenor Jose Carreras. For that, all three tenors were harshly judged by those same critics, and adored by audiences across the world.

Said Don Placido: "I think the career of Luciano was bigger because I was there as his friendly rival, and I think my career is bigger because he was there also as a friendly rival," a somber Domingo told a news conference Thursday.

Of the three tenors, it was Luciano Pavarotti whose sunny, beaming visage became best known to the non-opera audience. The worldwide expression of sorrow at his passing is testament to the way that voice climbed seemingly unscalable heights and into people's hearts.

But there was so much more to like and love than that gift: there was an air of generosity about him, the way he gave his all in performances (yes, yes, I've heard about the declining quality of his singing later in his career - this is not about his fading years). Pavarotti oozed charm, playfulness and flirtatiousness.

Here's a side to the man not usually seen on stage, as related by British soprano Jane Eaglen, writing in Slate:

"My family has come to opera through my involvement, and so, when they heard I was going to be singing with Pavarotti, they decided to come to New York to see a performance. My brother asked me to tell the story of Turandot, so they would be prepared. I briefly told them about the princess who asks possible suitors three riddles, which they must answer correctly or die.

"My brother, keen on games, wanted to see if they could get the riddles, so roughly translating from the Italian, I came to the second: What is hot but also cold, can give you a fever but also a chill? Is it love? No. Is it passion? No. Then my mother, thinking carefully, said, "Is it mustard?" It took several minutes for us to stop falling around laughing, and in many ways it's almost a better answer than the real one: blood.

"This story became a bit of a legend in the family and beyond, as I told various conductors and singers about it when I sang the role. James Levine loved it so much he insisted that I tell Luciano in a music rehearsal. We had only been working together a couple of days, and I was a little unsure if he would find it funny, but I told the story, and he did indeed laugh heartily for a long time.

"On opening night, some three weeks later, I was in my dressing room having my makeup done, when he came in with a huge wicker basket, filled with 12 beautifully wrapped little parcels, which he placed on my dressing table. I was amazed and thanked him profusely, saying it was far too lovely to unwrap there and then. He told me to wait until I got home, but said, "I wanted you to have this—it's 12 different kinds of mustard!""

But that was not all, says Eaglen.

"I never expected him to have such a sense of humor, nor to take the time to make this gesture, and I was really touched. He followed it up when, unbeknown to me, he was in the same restaurant where I was dining with my family. We had just been seated when the maitre d' brought over a dish of mustard and put in front of me. Upon seeing my confusion, he couldn't wait to tell me, "Maestro Pavarotti sent it.""

I think we could always see humor twinkling in his eyes.

But what about the very thing that first shot Pavarotti to stardom, the high C? What's the big deal?

“It’s the absolute summit of technique,” said Craig Rutenberg, the Metropolitan Opera’s director of musical administration — in effect, its chief vocal coach. “More than anywhere else in your voice, you have to know what you’re doing. To me it signals a self-confidence in the singer that lets him communicate to us that he knows what he’s doing and he has something very important to express with that note.”

Daniel J. Wakin, writing in the New York Times, continues:

"The high C has a...visceral, spine-tingling lure.

“The reason it’s so exciting to people is, it’s based on the human cry,” said Maitland Peters, chairman of the voice department at the Manhattan School of Music. “It’s instinctual. It’s like a baby. You’re pulled into it.” When a tenor sings a ringing high C, it seems, “there’s nothing in his way,” Mr. Peters said.

"The pitch, in itself, has a satisfying quality. The key of C major, after all, is a stable, cheerful, happy key, the one with no sharps or flats.

"Fascination may also derive from the fact that high tenor notes are somewhat freakish. Women have high voices, and men have low voices. For a male to sing that high with such power somehow seems unnatural."

"In the mid-20th century, Alfredo Kraus, Franco Corelli and Jussi Bjoerling had great high C’s. Curiously, Enrico Caruso, arguably the greatest opera celebrity, had a weak one and had to work hard to develop his top. Plácido Domingo, who extended his voice up from the baritone range and who is widely admired for his musicianship and artistry, is also not known for pinging high C’s."

"Mr. Pavarotti won his place in the pantheon of high C’s with a run of Donizetti’s “Fille du Régiment” in the 1972-1973 season at the Met. The aria “Pour mon âme” calls for nine of them in a row, and Mr. Pavarotti tossed them off brilliantly."

"Mr. Pavarotti once described the feeling this way: “Excited and happy, but with a strong undercurrent of fear. The moment I actually hit the note, I almost lose consciousness. A physical, animal sensation seizes me. Then I regain control.”"

Listen to him hit all 9 high Cs in that famed aria from Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment":

This was the scene at the funeral in the Duomo (cathedral) in Pavarotti's hometown of Modena this morning, as reported by Opera Chic:

"...a recording of Pavarotti and his dad rings in Church now, Panis Angelicus.

"Hearing that unique, unmistakable voice, that wondrous sound, while the TV carries the image of Pavarotti's maple wood coffin.

"In a spontaneous breach of etiquette, a standing ovation, and long applause echoes through the Duomo. It just never ends.

"A brief, quite eloquent -- for his standards -- speech by the Italian PM: "Sometimes we don't need words because sorrow speaks for us; and everything today demonstrates how deeply Pavarotti became part of our lives".

"It's over now -- Luciano Pavarotti will shortly be buried, in the Montale Rangone cemetery next to his beloved parents and his only son, Riccardo, stillborn in 2003."

Here's the young Pavarotti, in the days before the trademark look:

And finally, I want to share this song with you. It's not opera - rather, the Italian folk song "Mamma," and one of the things I most love hearing Pavarotti sing. It never fails to cheer me up:

Addio, Maestro. You will be sorely missed by many.