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Carol Jean Delmar On Opera — ‘Pavarotti’ Documentary Hits All The Right Notes

Luciano Pavarotti
Luciano Pavarotti in "Tosca."

Posted Thursday, June 13, 2019 - 8:08 pm

I absolutely loved Ron Howard’s documentary, Pavarotti, in spite of the fact that a number of critics didn’t. I read links to their reviews shared by some of my friends on Facebook, so I wasn’t expecting much when I went to see the film in Century City. Wow was I surprised when I loved every moment of it.

Pavarotti moved me deeply, and I didn’t look for flaws. I just wanted to listen to Luciano Pavarotti’s gorgeous voice. I didn’t care, if as some critics said, he lost his way. I didn’t care if he stopped singing traditional opera and was grandstanding in arenas. I didn’t care if he chose to sing with pop or rock stars, or that he gave much of his money from performances to charities. I didn’t even care if he was unfaithful to his first wife and then married another one many years his junior. Sounds scandalous, but the way Ron Howard affectionately directed and produced the film, I just accepted Pavarotti for who he was and wished that I could learn from him, to feel better about myself in this topsy-turvy world we live in.

Pavarotti was near death when very young, and when he pulled through, he decided to live each day to the fullest. He was just a peasant who loved to be among people and cook pasta. He was born with a gorgeous gift—his voice—and he took it very seriously, nurtured it and took care of it.

So what if he sang opera in opera houses, but later branched out with two other great tenors so that they all became mega stars. He furthered the cause of arts education, which is greatly lacking in our public schools.

Complain about the film all you like—those of you who criticize it. The fact remains that Mr. Pavarotti deserves this documentary. Someone else could have done it, but Howard had the ability to produce this documentary with others, and they were able to get it distributed into theaters for people like me to tear up over.

I’d recognize Pavarotti’s voice anywhere. When I was 16, my father gave me the option of having a sweet-16 party or getting a tape recorder, since I was studying voice from him and could record my lessons if I opted for the tape recorder. My father was an opera singer in Vienna and Prague in the 1930s, but lost his ability to sing during the Holocaust.

I chose the tape recorder.

I listened to Pavarotti a lot on that tape recorder, and to soprano Joan Sutherland singing coloratura from Lucia. I once interviewed tenor Neil Shicoff, and he admitted to me that he often listened to Pavarotti before he sang. If you listen to someone who has near-perfect technique, you then sing better yourself, my father often told me.

Since I didn’t have paper to take notes on at the movie theatre, I have to say with some uncertainty that the great tenor Plácido Domingo said in the film that singing came easy to Pavarotti. He had a natural voice.

Pavarotti was a lyric tenor who could hit notes squarely and focused with ping without much effort. The film goes into his technique with archival footage provided through research by the producers and extra footage provided by members of Pavarotti’s family, including his widow, Nicoletta Mantovani.

Joan Sutherland taught him a great deal about breath support. He describes how he learned support from her.

Pavarotti sang with a relaxed and open throat so that he could place his tones wherever he wanted with a connection to the diaphragm. Many singers talk about the tone floating on the breath, others talk about the vibrations of the tone being in the mask, and still others talk about the tone shooting forward. The images vary, and some talk about physically moving certain parts of the vocal anatomy to attain various results. With Pavarotti, the tone vibrated just where it was supposed to. No strain. Just flowing tones of beauty.

As I listened to the narration in this film, I felt like crying. I’m not sure if it was due to the familiar arias that always make me cry which he sang so well, or if it was about his bittersweet story, but by the end of the film, I didn’t know if I could get up off my seat to leave or not.

His whole family spoke glowingly about his personality. No grudges. No bad feelings anymore. They tried to come together to make this film. His two wives — Adua and Nicoletta — seem to have made peace. His children clearly love their dad. In spite of all his traveling, he was there for them.

Aside from family members, contributors interviewed and seen in film clips include soprano Madelyn Renée Monti, soprano Angela Gheorghiu, Zubin Mehta, tenors José Carreras and Plácido Domingo, Carol Vaness, Princess Diana, Andrea Griminelli, Nelson Mandela, Bono, Lang Lang, Phil Donahue and Johnny Carson, classical music critic and author Anne Midgette, and promoters and managers including Herb Breslin, Harvey Goldsmith and Tibor Rudas, plus others.

Some critics of Pavarotti have written that the film does not depict the true man. I don’t care. Pavarotti is no longer alive. He was a great artist. I feel that through the film, I got to know him better than I did before. Now, since I began writing about opera in about 2000, I have interviewed and personally know a number of opera singers and people in the opera world. I did not know any of these people during my teen years and into my 20s, 30s and 40s, so I lived with images of many of the greats while never meeting them. I could only imagine what they were like. I want to like my favorites. Ron Howard has enabled me to understand Pavarotti better and to like him. I wish someone would make documentaries on some of the other great artists. Opera may be a dying art, but not if those working in the craft promote the art to the public.

Simply hearing Pavarotti sing arias from La Bohème, Rigoletto, Fille du Régiment, Manon, Tosca and Pagliacci would have been enough for me to love this documentary. The film helps me remember Pavarotti at the beginning of his career, the Pavarotti who acted and moved freely onstage, as the clip of him singing Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore achieves. The film also helps me to remember the man Pavarotti became at the end of his career. I do not know that he lost his way as some critics have said or written. Ron Howard simply shows how Pavarotti branched out in many directions while exploring the landscape.

Two of the “Three Tenors” — Plácido Domingo and José Carreras — clearly respect Pavarotti’s artistry, as is evident in the clip where the they are deciding which arias to perform. No rivalry is displayed, just camaraderie. Their bantering before singing Nessun dorma is enjoyable, and hearing the three tenors sing high notes in unison is a memory I will not soon forget.

I loved this film. Take everyone you know to see it. And don’t forget to bring a handkerchief.

Carol Jean Delmar writes about opera and theatre. She is the author of “Serenade: A Memoir of Music and Love from Vienna and Prague to Los Angeles.”



One response to “Carol Jean Delmar On Opera — ‘Pavarotti’ Documentary Hits All The Right Notes”

  1. brooke wharton says:

    Lovely review.

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