Reflections on Pavarotti by Daniele Godor

Luciano Pavarotti is the best known tenor of our time. He is the only tenor who has more than one solo album among the top 100 in the list of the most sold classical records of the 20th century: he is claimed to have sold 100 million records or more, and only Herbert von Karajan and Georg Solti were able to exceed Pavarotti in this regard. Pavarotti has recorded an enormous amount of complete operas in the studio, his repertoire went from Idomeneo to Otello and the Pavarotti followers love every recording likewise. Pavarotti, who mainly recorded for Decca, was an industry within the recording industry, a star with a whole staff of secretaries, pianists, advisors, managers and fans, a king with a court. Pavarotti was soon called "the tenor of the century", a title which originally was given to Enrico Caruso, another tenor who became famous around the world by selling a great amount of records.

Reference: Lebrecht, Norman: The life and death of classical music. Anchor 2007.

Pavarotti's influence on opera can, like in the case of Caruso, not be underrated. Caruso's way of singing, his expression, his technique, meant a revolution to the dominating belcanto style of his time. Italian verismo, a branch of Wagnerian expressionism, overtook the leading role of belcanto opera at the turn of the century, and Caruso became its most popular performer. The sound of Caruso expressed more reality than the florid style of belcanto; the vocal delivery was dominated by a chesty, manly sound and characterized by a well rounded vocal range of two octaves with a consistent sound from bottom to top. Belcanto singers used to have command of a similar or larger vocal range, but their lower and middle register was not as chesty as the one Caruso used; their high and highest notes were, just as the middle register, distinguished by a strong mix of chest and head voice which provided the agility needed for the florid style. Often, the upper register was so dominated by the head voice that its sound seemed disconnected to the middle and lower register: the singer had literally two voices. With Wagner, the orchestration became thicker, and the orchestras became larger. The orchestral accompaniment left the usual thin pizzicato behind and went over to broad strokes which the singers had to compete with – a development which can be observed in a nutshell in Verdi's Otello: the accompaniment to "Ora e per sempre" is written in the old style where only the voice carries the melody, whereas the orchestra plays a role almost as important as the singers in "Sì, pel ciel". The orchestra is not only accompanying, it participates and competes in Wagnerian style: a heavy sound carpet which went over the powers of a usual belcanto tenor. The same applies to the operas of Puccini, Mascagni, Franchetti, Ponchielli, Respighi and so on.

Wagner also introduced a use of the tenor voice unknown to belcanto. It is well known that the emergence of sprechgesang (as opposed to the Italian cantabile) can be traced back to Wagner. But another fact is almost as important for the development of singing: Wagner, who was very fond of the baritone voice, exploited the tenor's middle and lower register like nobody else before him. Tenors had to have a voice of dark quality if they wanted to fill the middle and lower register with the sound Wagner had required. In addition, those low notes had to have the power to cut through the orchestra which asks for strong material, as lower frequencies do not have the same penetrating power as high frequencies. The tenor required by Wagner had to have full command of the low and middle register, plus powerful high notes. It goes without saying that these notes had to be as well-rounded and dark-sounding as the lowest ones – Wagner did not only put a big orchestra in the way, but his male roles are normally heroes, men with swords who could not deliver high notes that were suited for the Barber of Seville. The heldentenor was born.

Puccini and Mascagni – no Wagnerians but verismo composers – made wide use of that kind of voice. Verdi used it in his later operas, Aida and Otello – and soon, the Italian version of the heldentenor was born: the drammatico. As to Puccini, a development toward the drammatico can already be seen in Le villi and Manon Lescaut. While the first act of the latter opera is mainly lyrical, the register changes in act two with the great duet and "Ah, Manon" – an aria which lies very low and requires a strong low register. Act three and the final scene with the truly dramatic aria "Guardate, pazzo son" asks for stamina, a strong low register and penetrating high notes. The roles of Cavaradossi, Dick Johnson and first of all Calaf require similar qualities. Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana is highly dramatic and goes through all the registers previously used by Wagner and Verdi. So are many of his other operas, first of all Isabeau and Il piccolo Marat, so are Boito's Nerone, Giordano's Andrea Chénier and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci.

Not that the age of belcanto (a term invented around 1850 in order to distinguish Italian style from Wagnerian sprechgesang) did not have tenors capable of cutting through heavy orchestration – Duprez is only one example. But Caruso managed to hit the taste of his time more than other singers. He combined a very beautiful voice with great acting skills; he presented a new, manlier way of singing, with a dark middle register which he even used for typical belcanto roles (and that is probably why a Neapolitan critic attested him a "nice baritone voice" after having heard his Nemorino). Caruso did not have the voice of a drammatico, but he used the style of the drammaticos, their typical chesty vocal delivery, and used it for all kind of operatic literature. He adapted the style of verismo, sobbing, crying, sighing and first of all: he discovered the record.

Caruso's style went, pressed on 78rpms, around the world, conquered it, and became an idol for millions. Caruso's style was an ideal model for generations to come. It was a bow to the drammatico and the only way of singing the new popular operas by Puccini & Co. And it was the end of belcanto.

Pavarotti had a similar impact on singing as Caruso. Many tenors of the 1940s, 50s and 60s were geared to Caruso's style: Gigli, Pertile, Merli, Martinelli, then Masini, Campagnano, Del Monaco, Filippeschi, Corelli and so on. The well-rounded vocal range of two octaves with strong registers and chesty, heroic sound was important to all of them. A paradigm shift occurred, however, in the early 1960s, when the critic Rodolfo Celletti agitated for a return to the style of belcanto – a development which went in line with the attempts to play old music on original instruments. Strangely enough, whenever the talk is about the renaissance of belcanto in the 1960s, the name of Maria Callas is mentioned. Maria Callas sang and recorded many belcanto operas, but she never used a technique that was even remotely close to the style of 1850. We do not know how belcanto sounded as there were no recording devices in 1850 and since belcanto singers who recorded in the end of the 19th century were relatively old and the recording quality was normally poor. But Maria Callas, too, used a method and style inspired by Caruso. When Callas sang coloratura, the high and highest notes were taken with full voice, and their sound was as rich as the middle and low notes Callas sang. Callas started her career singing Isolde and Turandot – and she later on sang the rest of her roles with the technique required for the heavy repertoire she started off with. That – and only that – is the reason why Callas was able to fire off the legendary high E flat at the end of act two of Aida (Mexico City, 1951). A "normal" belcanto coloratura soprano (Lina Pagliughi) would never have been able to squash an entire ensemble, a full chorus plus an orchestra playing fortissimo with that brutal, Brünnhilde-like force.

No, the paradigm shift came from another corner. A singer who conquered the stages of the world with a style that – in contrast to Mario del Monaco for example – can only be described as "cultured", was Alfredo Kraus. Kraus, a favorite of the critic Celletti, sang the classical belcanto repertoire and lighter Verdi roles and was one of the key figures in establishing a new sound ideal in Italy. Kraus had a leggero voice, very agile but not very beautiful, not small but capable of reaching the highest notes without any problems. Like most singers of the belcanto era, he used a strong mix of head and chest voice, and his singing never showed any sign of strain or fatigue. In few words: his singing was cultured, elegant, noble, not very expressive, not heroic, very light and pleasant to the ear. Soon, Kraus' style became the standard for the belcanto renaissance. It is hard to say where the interest for the new style started. Germany, after World War II, had established a taste where raw, chesty and heroic singing was uncalled for: Windgassen, Wunderlich and Fischer-Dieskau were the stars of the German opera scene during the 1960s. And Alfredo Kraus seems to have been one of those singers who adapted the more cultured, intellectual approach to opera and who brought it the Italian stage. "Vocal machismo" in the style of the 1950s was on the way out – and therewith the heritage of Enrico Caruso. Del Monaco and Corelli were about to retire – and that was the moment when Luciano Pavarotti launched his career.

Pavarotti's first great success came in the role of Rodolfo in Puccini's Bohème, when he sang a performance for the indisposed Giuseppe Di Stefano at Covent Garden in 1963. His international career began not before 1968, when he gave his successful debut at the Met, again in La bohème. A few years later, he appeared in New York in Donizetti's Fille du régiment, hitting nine successive top Cs without difficulty. Soon, Pavarotti was named "The King of the High C". Pavarotti possessed a small, light and distinct voice of great beauty. His voice was characterized by a weak low register, a good sounding middle register and a well developed high register. Like in the case of Kraus, the high notes consisted in a strong mix of head and chest voice; even though Pavarotti's top register contained even more head voice than Kraus'. Pavarotti's passaggio was flawless, probably thanks to his severe teacher Arrigo Pola, for whom the passaggio was one of the most important issues of a singer's technique. Pavarotti's high notes were brilliant, but sleek and small as the middle register. He was beyond doubt a tenor of the "new style", albeit equipped with a much more charismatic voice and appearance than Kraus. Pavarotti was a very musical singer, he knew how to phrase, how to shape music, how to express – but in a much more refined way than the singers of the Caruso school were able to do. Pavarotti's great advantage was a beautiful instrument, which he could handle with a great deal of finesse and not the sheer vocal power of the post Caruso era. In the beginning of his career, Pavarotti's repertoire hence consisted mainly in operas of the belcanto repertoire and some light Puccini roles: Bohème, Butterfly, Rigoletto, Traviata, Idomeneo, Sonnambula, Elisir d'amore, Capuleti e Montecchi, Fille du régiment, Puritani, Manon (Massenet).

Pavarotti was wise to choose these roles which were more or less well-suited to his voice. La bohéme was already borderland for his light and small voice, which was well-suited to acts one and two, but too weak for the dramatic attacks in act three. But soon, Pavarotti added more dramatic roles to his repertoire: I lombardi, Ballo in maschera, La favorite, Luisa Miller, Rosenkavalier, Trovatore, Tosca, Turandot, Gioconda, Ernani, Don Carlo, Aida and – Otello. The reason for that may have been his growing popularity and the profit that soon was linked to the name Pavarotti. Most of these operas were recorded in the Decca studios before Pavarotti sang them on stage. The discrepancy between the studio recordings and the live experience was enormous – thanks to the electronic manipulations in the recording studios, which made Pavarotti's small voice sound bigger and much more powerful than it was in reality. Pavarotti's voice was nonetheless beautiful and pleasant, and all those recordings were major successes for Decca. Pavarotti soon became one of the most popular opera tenors, and like Caruso, he changed the taste and the perception of many following generations of opera listeners and singers – mostly via the Decca recordings. Pavarotti's LPs were best sellers.

Only a trained ear could hear that Pavarotti's voice in those studio recordings was tuned up; their popularity was immense. Pavarotti was the singer who set one standard after the other – no matter if it was about La bohème or Aida. Logically, it would have been easy to find a contradiction in the fact that a leggero tenor now sang the repertoire of spinto and drammatico tenors, and that these singers were less famous than Pavarotti – in the repertoire they were at home at. Il trovatore, Aida, Tosca, Turandot, Andrea Chénier and Otello were operas which were sang by Pertile, Merli, Del Monaco, Filippeschi, Labò, Borsò, Lavirgen, Giacomini and Martinucci – and now they became a domain of a lirico leggero. As to popularity, Pavarotti managed to excel his colleagues Lavirgen, Martinucci, Cossutta, Bonisolli and Giacomini by far.

The truth was only revealed when Pavarotti attempted to sing drammatico roles on stage. His voice and his technique rendered it impossible to come up to the expectations which a dramatic role imposes on the singer. Calaf, for example, is a role which Puccini wrote mainly for the middle and low register of the tenor. High notes are relatively scarce: a short high B flat when Calaf gets to see Turandot; the same note in his first aria; the A in the final scene of act 1 cannot really be considered a high note. Calaf has an optional high C in act two and the short high B in "Nessun dorma". The finale ultimo, written by Alfano, has many notes in the passaggio, but no high B or C. Calaf sings mainly in the middle and low register, where he has to struggle against Puccini's rich orchestration. The aria "Non piangere, Liù" is an excellent example for the typical register of that role, which mainly moves within F sharp (or G flat, in this particular case) and the octave below. A tenor who sings Calaf has to have a very well developed middle and low register in order to fill these notes with a sound that is strong enough to cut through the orchestra. Then he has to be able to lift the sound of these dark, heavy notes up to the high register when necessary – a Calaf with "two voices", dark and strong low notes but very light top notes will not satisfy the character of Calaf nor the music Puccini wrote.

Pavarotti did neither have the voice nor the technique to sing roles like Calaf and Andrea Chénier. His voice was small and could not compete with the heavy orchestration of post-Verdian Italian opera. His voice had a light leggero sound, which did not have the darkness required for filling the low and middle register. His high notes were built on the head voice, since he, being a tenor with a light middle voice, did not have the need to acquire a technique for lifting up something heavy from the middle register (the latter can only be done with a fair amount of chest voice). Pavarotti knew about these difficulties and tried to hide them as well as possible, and he succeeded as long as he had sound engineers around him who could help his voice to the heft it did not have. On stage, the discrepancy was obvious. Pavarotti was able to fill his middle register with a pleasant sound, but he was unable to lift that sound up to the high notes, which were still dominated by head voice.

Everybody who sings knows that high notes which are based on head voice are highly sensitive and require ideal conditions. The voice has to be in flawless shape in order to deliver a beautiful voix mixte. When Pavarotti attempted to sing roles like Chénier and Radames, when he tried to force his middle register into having a colour it originally did not have (by adding more chest), he endangered the base, the delicate balance of chest and head voice, which he needed for delivering his high notes. Pavarotti consequently began to struggle with the upper register when singing dramatic roles – and even in the roles that were better suited for him (Bohème), he did not always manage to come up to the expectations. I heard Pavarotti in the 1980s as Cavaradossi. He had difficulties at the end of "Recondita armonia", "La vita mi costasse", "Vittoria" and the great duet of the last act. Whenever he tried to sound dramatic, his high notes fell back. And worst of all was that he could barely be heard. In the same year, I also saw Domingo and Giacomini in the same role, the same opera house and with an almost identical cast. Domingo possessed a larger voice than Pavarotti, good acting skills, no dramatic voice but the ability to put a lot of pressure on some higher notes, especially the A and the B flat. He pushed, but that way, he could always be heard. Bepi Giacomini was the best of the three. He was a true dramatic tenor, he had a big and beautiful voice and he had obviously no problems with the role of Cavaradossi. Pavarotti, however, had the greatest success – 35 final curtains if I remember correctly. He had already conquered the operatic world with his beautiful but little voice – a voice that the audience wanted to hear in every single role – just as on his records. Pavarotti had created a completely new taste.

"Nessun dorma" became Pavarotti's trademark since the soccer world cup 1990 in Italy, light singing in a piece written for a drammatico. The Pavarotti revolution was therefore similar to what Caruso had achieved – but upside down. After Caruso, most operatic roles were sung with a drammatico approach; after Pavarotti, most roles were sung with a leggero approach. The leggero thing, the light sound, was not limited to the vocal delivery. Pavarotti went into the lightest of all light music: pop music. He participated in the racket of the "Three tenors" and grew even more famous with crossover projects, featuring stars like Sting, Bolton and the Spice Girls. Not only that Pavarotti started to sing pop songs – pop stars started to sing opera, and the border between classical music and pop music seemed to disappear. Michael Bolton recorded an album with opera arias and had recitals in opera houses in the south of Italy.

It might be true that such kind of entertainment could bring opera closer to a bigger mass of people, gain new listeners and help to fill the half-empty opera houses in Europe and elsewhere. But what kind of opera do those listeners expect? They expect opera (= "Nessun dorma"?) to be sung by light pleasant voices, even by pop singers, for the fun of it. Paul Potts is the best evidence for that tendency – his singing is considered to be "opera". But also Andrea Bocelli and Joseph Calleja, the latter by far the worst, are results of the "lightening" of opera. Calleja, a singer with the charisma of a bank clerk, has an unfinished and unhealthily produced voice, a true leggero with a head voice so weak that he cannot execute the same tricks as Pavarotti could. He also sings "Nessun dorma". And it is again Decca who produces albums with Calleja and promotes a kind of opera singing that would have been totally unthinkable before the Pavarotti revolution.

Pavarotti had great influence on many fields, and even his fancy appearance has been imitated by tenors worldwide. Beards à la Pavarotti are still great fashion among tenors, and even the girth of "Big P" (Calleja is well on the way) seems to be a welcome excuse for culinary excesses for many tenors. Many people even think that one cannot be a real tenor without having a body like Pavarotti! Forgotten are the Tibbetts and Corellis, the Martinuccis and Pinzas who have shown that it is not girth it depends on!

Luciano Pavarotti died at the age of 71. With him died one of the most charming voices of the 20th century and one of the best leggero tenors in the history of singing. If Caruso was the king of tenors in the 20 first years of the century, Pavarotti was the king of its last 20 years. Like Caruso, he had great influence on singing and listening, the taste of musicians and audiences likewise. There is, however, one big difference between them: Caruso knew that a cobbler should stick to his last – while Pavarotti could perform his miracles only with the help of electronics. He should have stayed the excellent Nemorino he was, but he wanted and managed to be Pavarotti, the great illusionist.

Picture of Luciano Pavarotti

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