Luciano Pavarotti was so famous, so beloved, and such an extraordinary singer, he became the first classical musician since violinist Jascha Heifetz in the 1940s to have his name become generic: a Caruso, a Toscanini, a Heifetz, a Pavarotti. His career took off when he sang an aria with nine high C’s — and hit every one. Toward the end of his career, his voice lost much of its luster, and his high-priced arena concerts, as early as his Boston Garden event in 1993, were something of an artistic sellout.
He sang very short programs, and without much commitment. But even in decline, he was still capable of a kind of singing that made him irresistible. At his last Symphony Hall concert for the Celebrity Series, in 2000, his legs were so shaky, a curtain had to be set up behind the piano so he could exit without having to walk all the way into the wings. And yet, in one of his best-loved arias, Donizetti’s “Una furtiva lagrima” (“A furtive tear”), when as the simple-minded Nemorino finally realizes that the woman he loves really loves him, I’ll never forget Pavarotti’s sudden heavenly — and moving — diminuendo on the word “morir,” which conveyed an uncanny sense of Nemorino’s inward amazement that he could be loved, that he could now die of love.
Two more of my fondest memories of Pavarotti also took place in Boston. One was on a Metropolitan Opera tour, in Tosca, in 1979. He was singing opposite the legendary 69-year-old Italian soprano Magda Olivero, four years after her belated Met debut. She had sung Tosca here for Sarah Caldwell a year earlier, but working with Pavarotti seemed to ignite her. And she ignited him. In the last act, Tosca tells her lover, Cavaradossi, who is being held as a political prisoner, that she’s schemed to rescue him by arranging a fake firing squad. Most Cavaradossis never question this plan; but even from the back of the hall, you could see the shudder of doubt riddle Pavarotti’s body. We knew that he knew he was going to die.
Pavarotti wasn’t an actor in the Method sense, but he lived so completely and full-heartedly in every moment he sang, whatever he sang, he made you believe he was feeling every note. Unlike most tenors, he seemed to have a consistently real and deep understanding of the character he was playing. If that’s not great acting, it’s some sort of operatic equivalent. And it surely was that intense sincerity and conviction that made him so utterly endearing.
In 1981, he began filming Yes, Giorgio, an awful movie and a disappointing document of Pavarotti at the height of his artistry. For the film, though, he appeared in a Pops concert on Boston’s Esplanade. Thousands of people came. Helicopters swirled overhead to capture the crowd scene from above. Of course, Pavarotti had to be amplified. And this was the revelation. One aria, Massenet’s “Pourquoi me reveiller” (“Why do you wake me up, you breath of spring”), from Werther, an aria in which young Werther feels overwhelmed by his own emotions, was particularly ravishing. Opera singers shouldn’t have to use microphones. But Pavarotti really knew how to use one. He made love to it, and it loved him back. And because he could sing more quietly than he could in an opera house or a concert hall, the performance had a remarkable intimacy. It was as if he were singing to each one of those thousands of people present.
I think everyone who ever heard him in person must have felt the same way.