Towards the end of Ron Howard’s documentary Pavarotti, the grandiloquent tenor’s first wife – who supported him before his career began, bore him three daughters in four years and was then left at home to answer his fan mail as he toured the world in the company of more nubile groupies – sadly takes stock of the man. After recalling how she spooned Neapolitan spaghetti into his mouth as he lay dying, she pays tribute to the generosity of his temperament but recognises that he was a frail and flawed human being. Of course, she adds, he was also an ‘eccelso cantore’. Her adjective doesn’t mean merely ‘excellent’; in the subtitles it’s translated as ‘sublime’, though for me it should probably be ‘exalted’ or ‘elect’.
Twelve years after Luciano Pavarotti’s death, twenty-five years after I last heard him live, Howard’s film, for all its discreet evasions, reminded me of his vocal glory – his ability to create a sound that was somehow both dark and radiant, clarion in its force yet capable of a caressing refinement, deliciously tangy in its way of biting into Italian words and making a meal of them (food metaphors are inescapable, and as a famous glutton Pavarotti would have approved). At the apex of Rodolfo’s aria in La Bohème, his enunciation of ‘speranza’, meaning hope, makes you feel giddily optimistic, at least for as long as he sustains the sound; then, incredulous, you realise that he has sung the word on a resplendent, open-throated, perfectly pitched high C. That note was Pavarotti’s speciality; although he surely didn’t know W H Auden’s theory that every high C proclaims human freedom and our capacity to transcend limits, he embodied that metaphysical triumph.
Music is invisible, nothing but a vibrancy in the atmosphere. Nevertheless, in Howard’s film the soprano Carol Vaness rightly insists, ‘I could see Luciano’s voice’. The conductor Zubin Mehta says that the audible tension it created in the air made his ears ring, almost painfully. One of Pavarotti’s daughters marvels at his capacity to confront empty space – a yawning hangar like the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the sports arenas where he busked in his last decades – and make it resonate merely by exercising two bits of gristle in his throat.
Pavarotti’s voice was a genetic gift, inherited from his father, with whom he sang in a choir in his hometown of Modena. He spent little time working on it; he never learned to read music and had a leaky memory – hence his cheeky insouciance, which irritated more disciplined artists like Plácido Domingo, his lifelong rival. But the bequest was also a burden. One of his mantras, as he plodded on stage, was ‘I go to die’. He meant that performance was gladiatorial: how could he be sure that the Cs would come when called? Pavarotti’s beaming relief during curtain calls was always a kind of resurrection: the voice had not deserted him, he was back among the living, and could now enjoy a Lucullan dinner with a crowd of star-fucking strangers.
Domingo, in an astute interview, remarks that the word for voice in European languages is always assigned a female gender. ‘The voice’, says Domingo, ‘is a prima donna’, even if its owner is a tenor; it is a demanding mistress who must be appeased and obeyed. Unlike the hen-pecked Domingo, Pavarotti assumed that the voice loved him unconditionally. He grew up in an extended family of doting women and was later mobbed by swooning female admirers. As a result, Howard’s film often resembles one of Fellini’s gynocratic fantasias. Like Mastroianni’s muses in 8 1/2, surrogate mothers and wives and concubines converge from everywhere to feed Pavarotti, mop up his sweat, stroke his ego and pack the thirty-four obese suitcases with which he travelled. ‘If Luciano wanted chicken milk,’ says his first wife, stoically devoted after multiple betrayals, ‘we would milk a chicken.’
Despite his cunning, Pavarotti remained an innocent: the parts that defined him were in operas by Donizetti – a lovelorn bumpkin in L’Elisir d’Amore, an equally naive peasant in La fille du régiment. His guileless nature, or perhaps his greed, left him open to exploitation, and his operatic career veered into populist vulgarity when a succession of piratical managers booked him into Atlantic City casinos, cajoled him to cook pasta on talk shows, winched him onto a very hefty horse to ride down Fifth Avenue in a Columbus Day parade, and – a fiasco that Howard tactfully overlooks – let him parody himself in a disastrous Hollywood romcom called Yes, Giorgio.
Howard’s film is sympathetic, even hagiographic: how else could he have persuaded Pavarotti’s two wives, his daughters and his mistress Madelyn Renée to open up as they do, often very movingly? But towards the end, as Pavarotti’s fame grows and his vocal powers dwindle, its refusal to judge the choices he made becomes more troublesome. Although Bono says that Pavarotti was truly ‘crushed by injustice’, his charitable campaigns on behalf of Bosnian orphans here look like self-indulgence, easier than the struggle to justify his reputation by continuing to sing opera. It’s the supreme delusion of celebrities to imagine – as Pavarotti’s friend Princess Diana did, and as Kim Kardashian does when she blathers about prison reform in the Oval Office – that they are ministering to humanity. But the fleshly follies of Big P hardly matter now. What we are left with are the sounds that emerged from his voracious, unsightly, absurdly pampered body. Pavarotti gave plangent voice to the human soul.