Premium

Pavarotti review: Ron Howard's documentary lets him off too lightly

3
Luciano Pavarotti
Credit:  David Lees

For a substantial section of the human race, smiling fat Luciano Pavarotti singing Nessun dorma is the image that will spring to mind if the word “opera” is mentioned. Over the past century, only Caruso, Chaliapin and Callas have achieved a comparable mythic status, and because of the stretch of modern media, his fame and record sales have spread wider than theirs.

Ron Howard’s new full-length documentary offers a straightforward biography of the man and his remarkable career. Made with the co-operation of his family and record label, it succeeds as far as it goes – which is not very far. While stopping short of outright hagiography – a few warts are noted – it lacks disinterested, critical voices, and glosses over or ignores too many crucial aspects of his artistry and personality to be regarded as a fully rounded portrait.

The story is clearly told. Born in 1935 in Modena, Pavarotti inherited his tenor voice from his baker father. In the mid Sixties, the patronage of Joan Sutherland put him on the leading world stages and won him an exclusive recording contract with Decca.

A decade of operatic triumphs took him to the pinnacle of his profession, but his ruthless American manager Herbert Breslin also brilliantly exploited his potential (and his excellent English) to appeal beyond the cognoscenti by putting him on chat-show sofas and making him the face of advertising campaigns for pasta sauces and American Express. Breslin even pushed him to Hollywood, where he starred in the 1982 romcom Yes, Giorgio – a flop, however, which scuppered his movie aspirations.

After his recording of Nessun dorma became the 1992 World Cup anthem and the Three Tenors concert was broadcast worldwide, his fame mushroomed. Opera became too much like hard work and, in partnership with the impresario Tibor Rudas, he spent more time giving solo concerts in massive stadiums. In 2003, he shocked his hardcore Italian fan base by divorcing his wife of 40 years, Adua, and marrying a young student, Nicoletta Mantovani. He died four years later from pancreatic cancer, leaving four daughters and something in the region of half a billion dollars.

Pavarotti with Nicoletta Mantovani

Asked how he wanted to be remembered, he said “as someone who took opera to the people” – a cliché, of course, but in his case a justifiable one. His capacity to reach those with no other knowledge of classical music is unmatched. And his singing in his prime, from the Sixties to the Eighties, remains to the more expert ear miraculous in its clarity of projection and splendour of tone. As an interpreter of the bel canto repertory and the earlier operas of Verdi, he ranks in the pantheon of immortals.

What the film can’t admit, however, is that the older he got, the lazier he became as a musician and the more he relied on a parody of himself – the broad grin, the ludicrous eyebrows, the clasped white handkerchief, the faked ecstasy after he hit a top C. Nor does the film so much as mention the many human props that he relied on – for example, his coach Leone Magiera, who drummed music into him by rote, or Jimmy Locke, the Decca recording engineer who exclusively held the magic recipe for creating the Pavarotti sound.

The film lets its subject off lightly; there is no muckraking of the sort that Breslin resorted to in a book published after he split with the singer in 2002, or about the unreliable and egocentric colleague, who drove conductors and sopranos crazy with his caprices and tantrums. Any negatives are soft-pedalled. Wives and daughters talk with dignity and discretion, other singers such as Vittorio Grigolo provide flattering encomiums.

The two-dimensional picture that emerges is of a sunny cheeky chappie with a schoolboy sense of humour, who loved guzzling pasta, breeding horses, painting landscapes and flirting with the ladies. A lot is made of his charitable activities, including his fundraising concerts in Modena alongside the likes of Sting and Bono; and rather too much time is spent slavering over his friendship with Diana, Princess of Wales.

Those who want their image of Pavarotti left intact will enjoy the film; others will feel that a chance to put the record straight has been evaded.