A Reputation (Like Everything Else About Him), Overblown
America is currently busy boasting two operatic institutions: The Metropolitan Opera and Luciano Pavarotti. The former recently displayed its wares up in Boston at the Hynes Cattleyard, euphemistically known as an "auditorium" and blasphemously used as an opera house. The latter has just fattened his already ample public reputation--while his belly shrinks on a rigid diet--with the television broadcast of "Boheme" brought to us straight from the artistic stage of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. Now that the country is high on an opera binge (where else in the world can a prima donna double as a talk show host?) the time seems ripe to put the latter of these two opera giants in its proper place. Like much else of him, his reputation is far overblown.
From Caruso to Corelli, the Italian tenor has always been and remains music's only matinee idol. The tenors have preserved a paradoxical mystique, combining refined and vertiginous high C's on stage with crude pidgin English and fiery Latin lust off. In most respects, Pavarotti lives out this mystique, regularly publicizing his voracious sexual and insatiable culinary appetites. But when it comes to comparisons with forebears where it really counts, Pavarotti's mystique loses potency. On the subject of singing, mere mention of Pavarotti's name in the same breath as that of the illustrious Caruso and Gigli marks an unforgivable departure from intelligent judgment.
This apalling point of tastelessness reached, I must insist that cooler heads prevail and public opinion be brought back into touch with the truth. Obviously, one cannot prevent misguided displays of enthusiasms, since in our society, truth cannot always be the arbiter of public taste. This must be accepted as one of democracy's drawbacks. However, at last count we considered ourselves among the more discriminating people on earth. With this standard to uphold I simply wish to inject a whisp of truth into the bloated reputation this man has acquired.
The judgement of voices--thankfully--is a highly subjective process. Dogma has no place in art. Politics and religion seem to satisfy man's need for pigheadedness. But there is similarly no need to be pigheaded in favor of Pavarotti's voice, an attitude which I'm afraid has become far too widespread lately, swooning at the mention of his name and fainting at the sound of his voice is chic nowadays. Quite frankly, he's a second rate tenor in an era when first rate tenors seem to be extinct.
Pavarotti's voice is the "bel canto" voice par excellence: light, thin, with a pleasant floating quality: truly lyric. In contrast to tenors like Jon Vickers or James McCraken, who sing as if they had swallowed cooking knives, Pavarotti's sings effortlessly. Nothing is worse than a singer who strains. But unfortunately, Mr. Pavarotti, like too many other lyric tenors, suffers from the identity crisis of a vocal lightweight. Not satisfied with the lyric repertoire, he wants to conquer the dramatic roles; Manrico, Radames, Canio. He could make no greater mistake. Nothing destroys a lyric tenor more quickly or completely than straining to sing those dramatic works to which his voice is not suited; the color darkens, the voice loses its beauty and unwieldly wobbles ensue. One hopes that from here on in Mr. Pavarotti will not stray too far from his proper domain and will leave the dramatic repertoire to those who can handle it.
But even within his own specialty, of lyric singing, Pavarotti cannot match many of hs predecessors. For all its ease, the voice simply does not have the sheer beauty of a Gigli or a Caruso or a Tagliavini. These were "golden voices"; the sound was not light and thin, but light and full, with richness and texture to the sounds they produced; they soothed and caressed your ears. Pavarotti's voice is pretty, but not as startlingly beautiful.
In its high range, the voice moves with greater facility than most voices nowadays--but that's only because today's crop of singers are unable to handle high notes. Jose Carerras or Placido Domingo often sing not just arias, but entire acts a whole step down. Today Tenors with "tops" are special phenomena. One need only recall singers like Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, whose upper range range with a clarion brilliance that would bury any Pavarotti high C. The great Fancesco Tamagno, the original Otello and perhaps the greatest Otello of all time, would often take arias up a half step or more because of the voice's increased power even at that pitch.
But high notes do not a tenor make. At least they shouldn't even though high C's account for Mr. Pavarotti's sudden fame. Caruso was a B-flat tenor, as were, Pertile, and Schipa. High C's were simply out of their performing range. And some past greats, like Martinelli and Pertile not only lacked good high notes but lacked beautiful voices altogether. They made their reputations on vocal excitement and elegance of interpretation. Today most tenors sing with plodding monotony; no variety of color, no subtlety of phrasing, no dramatic imagination. Mr. Pavarotti uses his voice with a bit more fashion than most of his contemporaries, but his singing is still a far cry from Gigli, Martinelli, or Schipa. What the operatic world needs today is a few more tenors with the keen interpretive sense of a Fisher Dieskau.
Yet today's public seems to accept today's tenors, Italian and otherwise. Pavarotti and Domingo thrill audiences the world over with what once would be considered dull singing, a trend that confirms my suspicion of a steady decline in operatic sensibilities. This decline may have started at roughly the same time that Opera began to die as an art form: something which occurred after the death of Puccini and before that of Benjamin Britten. We are now an artistically starved audience, looking at the operatic stage not as an expression of contemporary life, but as a musical museum, where singers execute historical documents, with technical accuracy and precision but little sincerity. Today the opera houses of the world abound with what Toscanini called "musica inutile"--useless music, music that flirts with our emotional sensibilities rather than attacking them.
Withal, I do recognize that Pavarotti has done a lot for Opera's popularity, if little for its standards of excellence. And Mr. Pavarotti certainly stands out as the leading lyric tenor on the contemporary scene, a veritable giant among his peers--though still a weak rival to his predecessors.