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Pavarotti Documentary Misses All The Right Notes

Tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who died in 2007, is the subject of a new documentary film, directed by Ron Howard.
Sasha Gusov
Decca Records
Tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who died in 2007, is the subject of a new documentary film, directed by Ron Howard.

In the opening scene of Pavarotti, the new documentary by director Ron Howard, the popular tenor travels deep into the Amazon jungle in search of an old opera house where the great Enrico Caruso may have once sung.

The building is shuttered, but because he's Luciano Pavarotti the door is unlocked for him to belt out a few honeyed notes from the stage. His fabulous voice soars into the vast emptiness of the auditorium.

Little could the viewer know, only moments into the film, that this opening footage would represent something of a metaphor for the entire movie. The documentary sports plenty of short clips highlighting the tenor's unique, sunny sound, but that voice, ultimately, echoes within a void. Pavarotti feels like a missed chance to tell a good story.

The real Pavarotti was a man of many paradoxes, an artist blessed with an enormous gift which in turn saddled him with immense responsibilities he often found impossible to fulfill. Upholding the standards of a 400-year-old operatic tradition is stressful enough, but doing it when you have become one of the most recognizable people on the planet adds another dimension of stress. Not to mention the tsunami of money that came rolling in, especially after the of popularity of The Three Tenors.

Bringing opera to the masses was Pavarotti's great motivation and success. You have to reach back into the 19th century, to superstars like Jenny Lind (who was managed by P.T. Barnum) and then Enrico Caruso and John McCormack to find adequate comparisons. The second Three Tenors concert at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in 1994 was reported to have reached some 1.3 billion people.

Certainly, there's enough material for an arresting documentary, but Howard's film doesn't take advantage of it. It lacks any dramatic arc, and fails to make us feel much for its subject, whose eventual artistic decline – which the viewer never sees – felt both sad and somehow inevitable. It also does little to bolster the magical, complicated art called opera.

With its reliance on family videos, publicity photos and a steady stream of talking heads spouting mostly feel-good superlatives, perhaps the best use for Pavarotti is fodder for PBS pledge-drives, a medium that the tenor helped transform completely. Pavarotti's rise to superstardom triggered a tectonic shift not only for opera and its visibility, but also for the business of classical music. But you won't learn much about that in Howard's hagiographic film.

The Voice

The Pavarotti voice, in its prime, remains a voice unmatched. Just a few moments of Stradella's "Pietá Signore," recorded live in 1987, and heard near the end of the film, is breathtaking enough to produce goosebumps. But the film doesn't bother to set it in context. There's no one to describe the voice in terms of what it was – a rich, round, agile instrument that instinctively poured forth the most radiant of Italian sunshine with pristine diction.

Not even his fellow Three Tenors colleagues Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, describe what opera mavens call "squillo," or ping, the ringing sound that makes something in your cranium buzz. Pavarotti had it in spades. Just one or two notes and you can identify his sound. Although many tenors today can toss off high Cs as Pavarotti did, none comes close to the great singer's vocal package. Soprano Carol Vaness is on to something when, in the film, she says she could "see" the voice. "You can count the molecules, practically, it's so clear," she says.

Pavarotti could have been a compelling story. (It was made by the same filmmaking team that produced the fine 2016 documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week.) It could have chronicled the most beautiful voice of a generation and how its charismatic owner ultimately turned his back on his art – and how wealth, ego and laziness played a role. Howard talked to many of the right people, but he likely didn't ask the right questions. Anne Midgette, the Washington Post classical music critic, is the only one who has perspective on the career. She explains that in the 1990s, around the time of the Three Tenors phenomenon, Pavarotti tends to lose his way artistically, "and the opera world was kind of left cold."

Did Pavarotti end up squandering his gift? Read a book like The King & I, the tough talking tell-all autobiography co-written by Midgette and the tenor's longtime manager Herbert Breslin (who also appears in the film), and you'll agree that he did. Alternately, Pavarotti's fans will point out that he had a good long run, debuting in 1961 and still singing in the early 2000s with the voice in remarkably good shape. It would have been appealing, though, for Howard to offer a few conflicting viewpoints. Instead, we must endure a smug Bono, who demonstrates how little he knows about operatic singing when he apologizes for "every crack" in Pavarotti's voice.

The movie does little to explain the athletic demands of opera, that singers, without a microphone, must project their voices above a full orchestra to be heard clearly in the upper most balcony of a 4000-seat opera house. Pavarotti did that for over three decades. He guarded his vocal resources in various ways, including an obsession with food, which eventually led to his decline. Even a rehearsal couldn't begin without a plate of pasta, which he felt was the sustenance of his success. After a while, his entourage included an entire kitchen – pots, pans and pounds of tomatoes, cheese and pasta – set up in his hotel suites.

One less savory secret involves simply reducing the time he actually sang by blowing off rehearsals and cancelling appearances. After a while, several opera houses, including London's storied Covent Garden, considered Pavarotti persona non grata. Ardis Krainik, head of Chicago Lyric Opera, washed her hands of him after one point when she realized he had cancelled 26 out of his last 41 scheduled appearances.

Pavarotti, like the most compelling heroes, was flawed. But it seems like Howard – or perhaps his financial backers, Universal, the parent company to Decca, Pavarotti's longtime record label – doesn't dare say a disparaging word about the great tenor. Oddly, the unwillingness to show the man, warts and all, sets the filmmakers in good company. Early on, Pavarotti was a good-natured, hard-working singer, cutting his recital teeth in small towns like Liberty, Mo. in 1973. But he became demanding and unpredictable. Yet because of the amazing voice that sold out show after show, nearly everyone was willing to overlook his considerable faults.

There are other interesting omissions in the film such as the fact that the acclaimed "King of High Cs" would have a hard time identifying one in a score. Pavarotti, admittedly, could not read music and he routinely had difficulty remembering his lines, even to songs and arias he'd sung countless times. At a concert performance of Verdi's Otello with conductor Georg Solti, the problem was mitigated by setting the tenor on a giant, throne-like chair and placing a person underneath to feed him his words. When the film chronicles his Pavarotti & Friends series of concerts in his home town of Modena – where he sang with pop stars like Sting, Elton John and Liza Minnelli – it conveniently leaves out the embarrassing revelation that at the first such concert, in 1992, the tenor had lip-synched to a recording.

What the film emphasizes, with success, is the childlike side of Pavarotti's winning personality. With a beaming smile, good cheer and witty rejoinders, the tenor won friends easily and could seemingly charm the pants off almost anyone. And apparently he succeeded, with any number of "secretaries" and girlfriends, all while married to his long-suffering wife Adua. But that's another story largely left untold. Pavarotti finally got his wish when his divorce from Adua was finalized in 2002. She gets one of the best lines in the movie: "He got used to having everything. If he asked for chicken's milk, they would have probably milked a chicken."

The Money

Pavarotti succeeded in singing, and he also succeeded wildly in the business of singing. It's another fascinating side to the tenor's life story left behind in Howard's documentary.

Pavarotti was a little-known, clean-shaven Italian tenor when he signed on with a brash New York agent named Herbert Breslin in 1967. Breslin secured his very first U.S. recitals, first large venue performances and first live televised opera from New York's Metropolitan Opera. Breslin, who is introduced in the film with a blast of music belonging to the villainous character Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca, says he and Pavarotti had "a unity of purpose." That purpose was to make as much money as they could by getting the tenor out of the opera house and into mainstream culture through a variety ventures, from shooting an American Express TV ad to booking him in Madison Square Garden.

Luciano Pavarotti's fame only increased after the advent of The Three Tenors, pictured here at the 1998 World Cup in France. (From left, José Carreras, Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo.)
Alain Benainous / Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Luciano Pavarotti's fame only increased after the advent of The Three Tenors, pictured here at the 1998 World Cup in France. (From left, José Carreras, Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo.)

In Breslin, Howard might have found a convenient bad guy, and a way to inject conflict into his story. But he doesn't do much with the agent, whose 36-year relationship with Pavarotti was a fascinating roller coaster ride of quarrels and groundbreaking accomplishments. Neither does he do much with another Svengali, Tibor Rudas, the Hungarian impresario behind the Three Tenors franchise.

After 1990, the year of the first Three Tenors concert, Pavarotti's devotion to the opera house took a back seat to giant arena-sized concerts around the world, especially with the Three Tenors, and his annual Pavarotti & Friends charity concerts. And that's when it started raining money. Pavarotti was paid somewhere close to $2 million (today's equivalent), plus royalties, for the second Three Tenors performance at Dodger Stadium. When they took the show on the road worldwide, over 30 times, he earned $500,000 per performance, plus royalties and a percentage of merchandise sales.

With the global reach of the Three Tenors concerts, videos, CDs and television, Pavarotti became a colossus of popular culture. His presence, particularly as the brightest star in the Three Tenors firmament, was felt in many places, not least of which was in classical record sales. The album from the first Three Tenors concert was a runaway global sensation, quickly becoming the best-selling classical album of all time, topping 12 million copies sold. Others hopped on the bandwagon and soon there were The Three Irish Tenors, the African-American Three Mo' Tenors, The Canadian Tenors, Three Tenors from the Holy Land, The Three Countertenors and even The Three Sopranos, whom Breslin managed. The phenomenon also inspired operatic boy groups such as Il Divo and Il Volo.

For some years, Pavarotti's wide smile and top notes graced the living rooms of millions when filmed versions of The Three Tenors concerts performed magnificently as PBS pledge drive premiums. As NPR Music's Anastasia Tsioulcas reported, "There's plenty of evidence that the original tenor trio altered PBS' music and pledge programming permanently – and it marked the point at which artist managers and record labels started to see PBS as a crucial driver for album and ticket sales."

In the end, what good was all the money? It's arguable that it diverted the great tenor's attention far away from his art. But Howard's film never considers these types interesting, inherently dramatic, conflicts. Instead, there's a reverential focus on Pavarotti's philanthropy, with people like Decca executive Dickon Stainer (also credited as one of the film's executive producers) saying things like "Goodness resonated out of him," or Bono, emoting, "He was crushed by injustice."

It's been nearly 12 years since Pavarotti died, he's been out of the limelight for a long time. One wonders: Why a Pavarotti documentary, and why now? Is it an effort by his record label (whose parent company bankrolled the project) to resuscitate his reputation? Naturally, Decca has released albums to coincide with the film.

At its best, Pavarotti gives you a glimpse into the life of a simple man who sang like a god. At its worst, Howard's documentary carves away much of the true glory and all of the drama, leaving only the bits people already know.

It's possible the movie may attract casual fans, familiar with Pavarotti from The Three Tenors era. Or instead, like the film's opening sequence, there may be a single, radiant voice singing to many empty seats. As much of a superstar as Pavarotti was, there is probably enough general interest, at this point, to support only one documentary about him. Why not make it a good one?

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.