When Luciano Pavarotti died of pancreatic cancer in 2007, many opera lovers had mixed feelings. The tenor was only 71 and it hadn’t been so long since he was the reigning star of his generation, still giving magnificent performances of his core repertoire into the 1990s. And he had always seemed to have a great lust for life: a man of appetites, happy to indulge his love of food and, when he wanted to, his love of people, crowds and all the adulation that came with being the most celebrated tenor since Caruso.
But even in the 1990s, it was a hit or miss with Pavarotti. Maybe he’d show up, or maybe he wouldn’t, and even when he did, there were too many evenings when he stood like a lump onstage and declined to move or to act or to engage with other singers. His voice was often in fine form, but the deeper radiance of his artistry — immediately obvious from recordings made in the 1960s and ‘70s — was often dim, or altogether extinguished.
Then there were the scandals, which made Pavarotti seem petty and ridiculous. There were accusations of lip-syncing at some performances, and a tax evasion charge after he claimed residence in the notorious tax haven of Monte Carlo (he paid huge fees and penalties but was acquitted of criminal wrongdoing).
After decades of marriage and womanizing, Pavarotti divorced his first wife, Adua, and married a much younger woman. He devoted himself to new pursuits, new kinds of music, crooning along in concerts with rock stars, and it seemed he had become one of those stock operatic characters: the old man slobbering after youth and beauty in a way that was comically undignified.
The best thing about Ron Howard’s polished new documentary, “Pavarotti,” is its compassion for the man, who emerges frail but not hollow, merely human and not the pathetic clown he so often seemed in his last decade. The film successfully challenges the caricature of Pavarotti that has lingered on long since his death, and in the process challenges opera lovers who abandoned him to reconsider the breach.
Using unseen video clips made by Pavarotti’s second wife, Nicoletta, and interviews with his first wife and their adult daughters, Howard encourages viewers to give Pavarotti the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his love life. It was always messy, as his first wife knew, and yet she seems to have forgiven him. If she can, we can.
But Howard is incapable of working outside the rigid cliche structure that governs Hollywood filmmaking, so his efforts to get at the “real” Pavarotti yield multiple Pavarottis, and the film is so slick and well made you hardly notice. Pavarotti was a simple man, a family man, a cheerful “peasant” who brought peasant authenticity to high art. But he was also a complicated man, a troubled man, a man uncertain of his own great genius, so he bore the scars of excoriating self-criticism and doubt. He was happy, but he was also sad. He was complex. He was larger than life. He was operatic.
Besides these inanities, the film also elides or ignores key questions about Pavarotti’s career. Hollywood believes in popularization like religious dogma, so Howard doesn’t focus on how the tenor’s broader success as a crossover artist (who could fill stadiums with his Three Tenors concerts with fellow artists Plácido Domingo and José Carreras) changed the larger recording industry and classical music.
Those who watched the classical-music recording business decline over the past 30 years still wonder whether the phenomenal success of the Three Tenors fatally warped the expectations and priorities of the great classical labels. Wasn’t it the Three Tenors who elevated the corporate vulgarians and moneymen within the industry and killed the institutional imperative to make great records in favor of the capitalist imperative to make loads of money? If Pavarotti’s crossover success built a new audience for opera, where are they now?
Still, despite the omissions and the intellectual drivel driving its narrative, Howard’s “Pavarotti” is still an occasion for reflection, and the picture it presents of the tenor is sufficiently rounded that those new to his artistry will likely be beguiled. He was, in fact, one of the greatest artists of the last century, and there is sufficient attention here to his early years, before the stadium concerts and when he still seemed to care deeply about giving a full performance, to remind everyone just how extraordinary his voice was.
A recording of Pavarotti’s stage debut (as Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La Bohème”) reveals a voice with all the top notes we recognize but little of the breath control and legato that made his singing feel effortless and inexhaustible. But four years later, Pavarotti toured Australia with Joan Sutherland, an established artist with perhaps the greatest vocal technique of any singer of the past century, and he emerged from their extended collaboration with a rock-ribbed mastery of his magnificent instrument.
To those who felt betrayed by Pavarotti’s change of direction in the 1990s, who felt abandoned by his move to stadium concerts and new, more popular repertory, Howard’s film presents a special challenge and, perhaps, a prompt toward more charitable memories. “Betrayal” is a strong word, but it is apt. It wasn’t that Pavarotti dabbled in pop music or sought the adulation of the crowd but, rather, that those things overshadowed and mostly supplanted his operatic career. He left behind those who loved him first, and most.
Howard’s mediocre film, imperfect and annoying, is occasion to remember that despite all that, Pavarotti did indeed have a soul. Somewhere a little past the middle of his life, the singer seems to have lost his way. But that’s an old story, and given all that he accomplished before those wrong turns, who can blame him in the end? For a quarter-century or more, he did his duty, and then he no longer felt obliged to it. On balance, he left an incomparable legacy.
“Pavarotti” (PG-13) opens Friday.